‘I was a boy who wanted nothing so much as to join the police’

In this chilling extract from his book Forced Out, Kevin Maxwell describes the abuse he suffered while serving as a black, gay officer

I was born in Liverpool in 1978, two months before my mum’s 42nd birthday. I was her 11th and last child – she had her own football team. Like all of my siblings, I was mixed race. My mother was white, with long brown hair and piercing blue eyes flecked with green. I was a brown-skinned, brown-eyed boy.

My love of the blue police uniform was evident very early on. I insisted that any toys bought for me for birthdays, Christmas and Easter were police-themed Lego. For my fifth birthday, my mum bought me my first bike, decorated in police stickers. I was elated. I was obsessed with the police force; I was a little boy who wanted nothing so much as to “protect and serve”.

Every spare moment I had as a child was spent at home, building my Lego police stations or watching American cop shows. My favourites were Cagney & Lacey, TJ Hooker and Hill Street Blues. I named every Lego officer I had after characters from The Bill.

My brother had taught me the phonetic alphabet from A to Z, alpha to zulu (so I finally worked out what the British cop show Juliet Bravo was all about). With my newfound knowledge, I read the number plates of the cars I saw on my estate and pretended I was undercover, a secret one-man operation, keeping an eye on my neighbourhood.

To me, the police were the bastion of justice and equality. I desperately wanted to be one of them and couldn’t wait to grow up to fulfil my dream of working for the force.

After Salford University, I applied to join Greater Manchester police and when I was accepted I felt like I had won the lottery. I was keen to tell some of my closest university friends, particularly my best friend, Dan, so I arranged to meet him in a bar in Manchester’s gay village. As he sat down I said to him: “I got in.”

“Got in where?” he asked, looking at me strangely.

“The police,” I replied.

“Oh, Kevin.”

Dan wasn’t the only person to be worried. The rest of my white liberal friends at university were having none of the police’s public statements about changing and they certainly didn’t share my vision of hope about the public drive towards diversity in the force. They repeatedly warned me about racism and homophobia still being rife. But I didn’t let any of my friends shake my resolve. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

In the second week of my initial police training, a memo was posted around the classes, asking for all the “ethnics” to report at the school chapel the next morning before class. As a result of the Labour government’s drive to recruit more officers of colour there was a larger number of ethnic minorities than usual in my cohort but we were still only a handful out of 60-plus recruits.

The leadership wanted a photoshoot for a media campaign, to show the public they were committed to equal opportunities. I could see why this might be an instant public-relations hit, but I didn’t want to be part of it. The publicity could have put me in danger and jeopardised any future operations I was involved in. I told the press department that I wasn’t doing it and returned to my class. The photoshoot marked an immediate racial divide between the cops. It led to white officers feeling excluded, especially those who perceived the photo-op as special treatment. Some were furious. Back in my class, the tension was tangible.

One evening soon afterwards, I was in my room in the accommodation block revising for my weekly law knowledge test. It was early evening and one white cop was blasting out R&B music in the next room to mine. Someone shouted: “Turn the coconut music off!” There was an outburst of laughter and a few voices started whispering.

Coconut. I’d heard the term before. Black people who joined the police were known as “coconuts”: black on the outside, but white on the inside. Someone knocked on my door and, when I opened it, the white officer who’d shouted the word was standing outside. He took a step towards me and said: “You heard what I just said, didn’t you?” “Yes,” I said, and closed the door. I didn’t know what else to do. Was I supposed to hit him? Shout at him? I heard him walk into the room to the left of mine. I sat at my desk and listened to him and some others burst into another fit of hysterics. Uncomfortable and unsettled, I left the floor.

I went to sit in the classroom to think. En route, I saw my white class trainer. I sat down with her, to tell her what had happened. Taking solace in the privacy of the room, I confessed that I didn’t know whether to quit the police then and there and return home to Liverpool, because I didn’t feel comfortable in such an unaccepting environment. I had gone from being an ethnic to a coconut.

One of the officers laughing in the next room, an ex-army man, had once told a group of us that a former army colleague of his had accepted the nickname “black bastard”. It was just banter, he said, everyone had a nickname in the services. I knew I couldn’t be protected from this behaviour that was seen as normal, but felt I shouldn’t have to subject myself to it for the rest of my career.

Several hours later, it was suddenly campus news that the officer who had shouted “coconut music” and one of the ringleaders from the group laughing in the bedroom had been “marched off” the police training site and sent back to their respective forces, a process known as being “back-classed”. I felt the glare of the spotlight on me, the black cop that other officers were starting to suspect was gay.

Not long afterwards, an internal affairs inspector and a sergeant from GMP arrived to interview me. After pulling me out of class in front of my peers, they told me that if I proceeded with a complaint against my colleagues it would be my word against theirs and I would have to deal with the consequences. I hadn’t filed or even suggested making a complaint.

I knew that a complaint from me would mark my police career. I didn’t want to be isolated any further. My white classmates were agitated about the predicament of the two officers who had been sent back to their forces and I knew that if I wanted to survive as an officer of colour in the police and complete the residential training, I had to keep my mouth shut and head down.

After my initial training, I was posted to Bootle Street police station, a grand old stone building in Manchester’s city centre, the headquarters for the old city police. My new station was called “Brutal Street” by my colleagues, a reputation it lived up to. The first thing the superintendent asked me – in front of his deputy – was: “Have you come to my station on a crusade, waving a gay and black flag?”

Alarmed, I said that I hadn’t. I was not a member of any political association, I just wanted to do my job.

I quickly realised homophobic attitudes were standard. For example, a female colleague complained about not wanting to go to Via Fossa, a bar in Manchester’s gay village, and deal with a theft. She didn’t want to be dealing with “queers” and their “drama” anymore. Within the safe confines of my mind, I challenged her, calling her out for her homophobic language – but fear kept me from actually saying anything. I did not want to make enemies. On another night, after work a group of us went to the local nightclub, I went to join a circle of my colleagues, just in time to hear one of the male officers announce: “If a gay guy ever tried to hit on me, I would break his nose.” His words were meant for me. This officer had tested me previously, by asking me in front of others if I liked women. My brain shouted, “So, just because I’m gay I’m attracted to you?” But again, I kept it to myself. He carried on, saying he didn’t think what gay people did was “natural”. I held my tongue, smiled and drank my drink.

There was a hierarchy in the police. First came the white straight male, then the white straight female, then white (male) gay officers, then white lesbian officers, then straight officers of colour. Black gay officers didn’t make the list. Disabled officers weren’t even considered.

Just before Christmas, two years into the force, I was confirmed as a fully fledged constable. In high spirits, I attended my patrol’s Christmas party at the Bootle Street police station bar. A colleague was doing standup comedy for the evening. Part of his routine focused on me. I was sitting in the front row with some colleagues as he made up a story about finding me in the middle of a sexual encounter at the station. According to the routine, I had been on my knees giving oral sex to a male prisoner in the cells while my sergeant was looking for me.

My face and ears burned as the crowd laughed. I looked past several people wiping tears of mirth from their eyes and saw my patrol inspector walk out. Shortly afterwards, one of my sergeants called me on my mobile. I was asked to see the inspector in his office. As we sat there, he asked me what I wanted to do. I simply said “nothing”. The inspector said that he would deal with my colleague, but I didn’t have much hope; he hadn’t, after all, said anything during the standup act.

After our impromptu meeting, I returned to the bar. Though I was the one humiliated, I found myself reassuring my colleagues that I had not made any complaint against the “comedian”.

Over the next few years, I tried repeatedly to get accepted on various detective training schemes with no success. Most officers with just two years of experience in the police could successfully get themselves on to the detectives’ course. I had helped several of them with their detectives’ interview preparation. They were white. I was a minority officer with an excellent service record and top test scores but for some reason I could not pass the first stage. My second application did not even make it past the paper-sift to the interview stage.

The fourth time I applied I was interviewed by a detective inspector, who had known me when I was a police constable at Bootle Street, and a detective sergeant. They told me they couldn’t understand why I had not applied to the CID before. Later, I received a phone call informing me I had come top in the interviews and finally been accepted.

Not long before, I had submitted a grievance report about being turned down so many times for detective training. If I wanted the grievance progressed, I had to be ready for a battle. But I’d been offered a position I’d fought so hard for. I decided that the best thing for me to do was to keep my head down and mouth shut. I will pass the detectives course, I thought, then get as far away as possible from GMP.

In June 2008, I travelled to London for an interview with special branch. Later that day I learned I had come top of the interviewees. I was elated. I would be putting my experiences at GMP behind me and starting afresh with the Met at Scotland Yard.

I joined a specialist intelligence unit with the responsibility of bringing to justice anyone engaged in terrorism or domestic extremism. Due to the nature of the work, most of the branch’s intelligence came from the seaports and airports in the UK. I was sent to Heathrow airport.

There were seven members on my team, including me: four officers, my sergeant – all white – and one other black officer. He and I were the only two black officers out of the several hundred at special branch who were known as detectives. My new sergeant was strangely hostile towards me. We’d only ever spoken over the phone and when she first met me, she was cold. My black colleague was quick to notice her behaviour towards me but advised me to ignore it. When the sergeant finally sat down with me to go through my performance development review, I told her about my interest in the Home Office’s high potential development scheme, as I’d been identified as having high potential for leadership upon joining the Met. She replied: “Don’t get above your station.”

She was supposed to be my mentor, but she left me trying to figure most things out for myself. For example, she once instructed me: “Turn the office alarm on before leaving.” But I had never been shown how to turn it on. “Move. I’ll do it,” she snapped, nudging me aside. Or: “Unlock the safe,” she demanded. “I don’t know how. I don’t know the code.” “For God’s sake,” she muttered. It wasn’t really what I was hoping for in a mentor.

I began struggling to sleep and eat and needed to force myself to go to work. I wasn’t sure what was happening to me. I spoke to the black officer in confidence about our situation. I told him I was gay. He was fine with it. “Keep your chin up,” he encouraged me.

In the spring, I was ready to move out of my police accommodation and started looking for somewhere to live in London. I asked some colleagues for advice. One officer told me to make sure that I didn’t live in south London, below the river, with “the scum”. He and another officer went on to discuss the Met’s Operation Trident, which had been set up to tackle gun crime and homicide in London’s African-Caribbean communities after a series of shootings in some south London boroughs. I mentioned that Trident was looking for experienced detectives to join its command. They told me not to apply, as I would be dealing with “shit’” all day – meaning the predominantly black victims and witnesses.

Soon afterwards, while I was using a computer terminal, an officer came in and began talking about gay men “taking it up the arse”. He continued his rant about homosexual sex until a female officer interrupted him. “Enough,” she snapped. He stopped. On a later shift, he came back, having since been informed that I was gay. He attempted to apologise, but the damage had been done.

The year after joining the Met I attended a terrorism forensics awareness course at Paddington police station. The presentation sergeant, a white man in his 50s with a shaved head, opened his briefing by stating: “I am not politically correct.” The first slide of his PowerPoint was of a man at a fairground surrounded by children. He told the class the man on the screen was “as gay as a gay in a gay teashop” and everyone laughed.

When the day was over, I went to the Globe pub on Marylebone Road with a detective and two other colleagues from the course and admitted how I felt. My colleagues said the sergeant was stupid and unprofessional. A valid point, I thought, yet no one had stood up to him. Because everyone, including myself, stayed silent, the behaviour was sanctioned, acceptable. Once again, I found myself part of the problem.

I had been having headaches and stomach pains and at around this time they started getting more severe. An hour into a shift one day, I was walking along the public concourse at Terminal 5 when I suddenly became intensely aware of the bright lights above. They were blinding me. I stumbled, managing to catch myself, and panic set in. As sweat quickly beaded all over my body, I asked the duty sergeant if I could go to hospital. At the NHS walk-in centre in Soho, I was seen by a nurse practitioner who, after routine tests, asked me: “How are things in your life? Are you happy?” Taken aback by the personal nature of the questions, I couldn’t speak. Suddenly, I became aware of a wetness on my face. I reached up to touch it. Not the sweat of panic, but tears. I was crying.

Like a dam breaking, everything I had bottled up over the past few years in the police burst out. I was a mess.

“You’re suffering from depression,” she said. I was stunned. Depression didn’t happen to people like me. I had coped up to now in the police, despite the negative experiences, so why had it happened now? But here I was defeated after years of denial in the force and betrayed by a body that had finally had enough and given up.

Kevin Maxwell was signed off work with depression by his doctor but the police’s medical and welfare officers contested the diagnosis. His pay was halved, then stopped altogether. An employment tribunal later found Scotland Yard guilty of 40 counts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation. The force appealed and then proceeded to dismiss Maxwell while the appeal was in progress for “discrediting the police service”. The reason given was that he refused to attend a job interview while unwell. The force eventually lost the appeal.

This is an edited extract from Forced Out by Kevin Maxwell, published by Granta (£14.99)

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