Black and Blue by Parm Sandhu review – home truths about life in the Met

In August last year, when the Metropolitan police ended its active investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence after 27 years, the Met’s commissioner, Cressida Dick, gave an interview in which she rejected the idea that institutional racism still persists in the force. Former chief superintendent Parm Sandhu, the highest-ranked BAME (her preferred term) woman in the Met, begs to differ. Black and Blue is her account of a 30-year career that saw her break through multiple glass ceilings, but which ended in her resignation in 2019 after charges of gross misconduct and a spate of damaging media stories.

Her alleged offence was to have lobbied on her own behalf for honours, a technical breach she concedes, but she points out that she could not rely on the old boys’ network that benefits her white male colleagues. She was later exonerated, and notes that black and minority ethnic officers are twice as likely to be investigated for misconduct as their white counterparts.

The memoir is Sandhu’s chance to set the record straight and put the accusations against her into a context of sustained antagonism by certain of her superiors, who embody an entrenched culture of racism and sexism that, in her view, is not going anywhere just yet.

“Given how under-represented black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are in its ranks, the Met could so easily have used my story as an example to encourage recruitment from among these groups,” she writes. “Instead, I found myself compelled to end my career by resorting to what would inevitably be a highly public and damaging employment tribunal, citing evidence of systematic and long-term discrimination on grounds of race and gender.”

It’s a squandered opportunity by the Met on so many levels, because Sandhu’s story is inspiring even before she joins the police. The fourth of six children of a Punjabi Sikh family, and the first to be born after her parents arrived in Britain, she was raised in Birmingham in a conservative culture that held rigid ideas about the roles of girls and women; her father is quick to administer a beating if she dares defy those expectations.

At 16 she has an arranged marriage with an older man, which she endures for three years until her son is born, then flees with him to London with £250 in her pocket, where she works several jobs to build an independent life. This proves unsustainable, and she returns her son to her parents’ home; he doesn’t live with her again until he is of secondary school age. She says little about her subsequent relationship with her son, perhaps to protect his privacy, but it would have been interesting to hear more about the emotional repercussions of that sacrifice.

Sandhu’s account of her ascent through the ranks of the Met is testament to her extraordinary tenacity and ambition, but it’s hard not to feel enraged and dispirited by the constant barrage of obstacles thrown at her. Often she finds herself fighting on two fronts: the attitudes of her colleagues and the prejudices of her own community (young Asian men in the street tell her she should be at home having babies).

The book has been written with journalist Stuart Prebble, and as is often the case with collaborative memoirs, the result is a slightly impersonal, factual tone. There are sound practical reasons for that here; many of the incidents she describes are highly emotive, and women and people of colour have to take extra care to avoid accusations of being overly angry or emotional. This does make it hard to get a sense of Sandhu’s own voice, except in a few instances where she reports her own speech: on one occasion, she tells of how she confronts Cressida Dick when the latter offers some platitudes about positive discrimination.

Sandhu’s story shines an important light on the Met’s failure to understand and represent the diverse community it serves. Despite everything, she concludes that she would still encourage young BAME people to join the police, since the only way to change those attitudes is from within. Whether her experience will serve as inspiration or deterrent is another question.

Black and Blue: One Woman’s Story of Policing and Prejudice by Parm Sandhu is published by Atlantic (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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