Even as she edges ever closer to retirement age, PC Andrea Reynolds of the West Midlands Police force has decided to “have a last push to illuminate the debate” around why there’s such a disconnect between the black community and the police in the UK.
After almost 30 years of service, Andrea felt that the “gulf was getting wider” and the recent Black Lives Matter protests show quite powerfully how disgruntled this community is.
That’s why she decided to take on the challenge of studying for an MA in Social Research with the University of Birmingham in 2018 writing a dissertation that focuses on procedural justice 1 and its impact on black communities. On top of her active service as a police officer, her duties as a mother, a partner, a church Minister,and a founder of a youth mentoring programme, she graduated with a distinction for her dissertation in 2020. She is also a poet and a keen guitarist.
Andrea has always been a formidable woman, though. When she graduated from police training back in the early nineties, she immediately handed in her resignation telling senior officers that she didn’t think she would be given a level playing field and she didn’t want to “expend her energy in that way”.
Brazenly and bravely standing up for her principles has had Andrea marked out as difficult and divisive throughout her career. Luckily at that time, the Assistant Chief Constable (ACC), who had remembered Andrea from the accelerated graduates programme, got in touch with her to find out why she was resigning.
She told him in no uncertain terms that her treatment on the team had been "extremely difficult" to bear and was an “obvious reminder of colour”. She also made the claim that the police force was not ready for her “injection of colour” and “a canvas without colour was no canvas at all”.
Surprisingly to Reynolds, ACC Wardle launched an investigation and the response to its findings vindicated her to the extent that the team received reprimands and training. Only then did she feel she could accept a position.
Being a little stubborn and of the opinion that it’s “better the devil you know”, Andrea rejoined the same shift team in order, she says, to “face the demons” that she knew would follow her wherever she went.
“I knew I would survive,” she told Shakti Women. “My church put some serious prayer around me.”
Going back was “most uncomfortable”, she remembers. “Obviously when you challenge such an established system, you’re the divisive one, you’re the trouble maker.”
1 Procedural justice is the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes and allocate resources. One aspect of procedural justice is related to discussions of the administration of justice and legal proceedings. In other words, it’s the neutrality, respect, voice and trustworthiness that should combine to make all public procedures fair.
Andrea admits that as a black woman born in London but raised in Jamaica (because her parents could not stand the racism), she was perhaps a little naive about what to expect but, after that initial hurdle, she simply wouldn’t give up and she wouldn’t be silenced.
She felt passionately that it was her responsibility to respond to the hostility she was subjected to and, after beginning to meet regularly with other minority ethnic colleagues across the country for comforting "tea and talks" to share their experiences of racism, she helped to found the Black Police Association.
Eventually, it was constituted to support its members to challenge racist and discriminatory behaviour, but it was a rough road to get it established. They had little support. All the work they did to get it off the ground was undertaken in their own time, on top of their shift duties, for no extra pay.
Their perseverance paid off, however, when they started to get invited to “sit around significant tables” within the force and, when Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993, they were there to support Doreen and Neville Lawrence in their campaign for justice.
“After the watershed of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry,” Andrea recalls, “we had a little bit of a momentum to try and push forward some joint strategy work with the chief police officers, to make things better.”
“There were a whole raft of recommendations and we were very hopeful that we might have been able to see some of those implemented. We were around the table working out things like targets for recruitment and retention. This was not for any additional pay. [We spent] copious amounts of hours trying to push the agenda forward in a positive way.”
Interestingly, it was another founding member, Leroy Logan, who the director Steve McQueen chose to depict in his award-winning Small Axe film, ‘Red, White and Blue’ aired on the BBC last winter -a point which we at Shakti Women feel raises the separate issue, perhaps, of why black women are far less acknowledged even than their black male counterparts.
Andrea agrees. “Even on that level, yes, we hear his [Leroy Logan’s] voice a lot. He managed to get opportunities but the women were there grafting for change at the time.”
To any budding female directors out there, Andrea’s story is crying out for its fair share of screen time!
Ever since Andrea started serving on the force, she has thrown herself into the cause for systemic change. Passionate about creating a service that works for everyone, on the inside and out, she has invested copious amounts of (largely unpaid) hours into external activities to bridge the gap between her community and the police force, to illuminate the debate around stop and search and to offer support and guidance to young people and parents in relation to things like illegal drugs and knowing the law. Committed to the challenge of cultural and systemic change from the bottom up, she has never gone for promotion, seeing more value in doing what she could in the confines of where she could reach.
She has, for example, taken on roles that could influence the way officers were taught the job, becoming a full time Police Trainer in 2001, a Diversity Coordinator for a time and a Staff Officer with the Inspectorate, holding the body that inspects the police to account.
During her long career, Andrea is well aware of the feathers she has ruffled along the way, choosing to “command respect” through decisive action rather than, she says, be loveable.
Nonetheless, she has won several awards including the Queen’s Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and in 2002 she was awarded the Officer of the Year award by the International Association of Women Police for her contribution to diversity and equality in policing. She was also recently nominated on social media to feature in a Birmingham City Council commissioned book to commemorate the 100th year of Women getting to Vote and the Centennial of WW1 titled ‘Once Upon a Time in Birmingham, Women Who Dared to Dream’(2018).
Not satisfiedwith the positive impact she has already had, Andrea now hopes her MA dissertation will draw the attention of high-profile sociologists and psychologists in the struggle against systemic racism. You can read an excerpt of her research here.
“It’s been a long haul,” sighs Andrea, “but I have every hope and confidence that change will come.”