Carol Howard and Discrimination in the Metropolitan Police

Last week, an employment tribunal awarded PC Carol Howard £37,000 in compensation for mistreatment by the Metropolitan Police.  The Tribunal found not only that Scotland Yard had discriminated against her because she was a black woman, but also that she was retaliated against and victimised for complaining about that discrimination. 

Howard was the Metropolitan Police’s poster girl for the 2012 London Olympic Games: she appeared in the Evening Standard for a feature on the specialist officers protecting the capital during the Olympics. Howard was only one of two black officers, and one of only 12 women, in the 700-strong Diplomatic Protection Group. So Howard was used to exhibit the “diversity” of the Metropolitan Police – she believes, to combat allegations of racism after the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011. However, she was privately bullied on the basis of exactly those characteristics that the Met was happy to publicly show off.   

The tribunal’s 36-page decision details an appalling record of targeting and discrimination at the Met. At McAllister Olivarius, we see cases like Howard’s all the time.  Discrimination is still all too common, and when people find the strength to complain, many employers “double down” on their wrong behaviour by retaliating and blaming the victim for creating the problem.  Howard’s is a textbook example of gender and racial discrimination in the workplace, and of the stresses that some whistle-blowers unfortunately have to face as they pursue justice.

In this case, Howard had to show that she had been unfairly targeted and discriminated against on the basis of her race and gender. Under the 2010 Equality Act, an employer is prohibited from treating one employee less favourably than other employees, because of a protected characteristic such as sex or race. Additionally, it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee for making a complaint of discrimination. Howard argued that the Met had done both: they had discriminated against her, and victimised her when she complained about it.

The facts overwhelmingly supported her claims. Upon becoming Howard’s line manager in the elite Diplomatic Protection Group, Acting Inspector Dave Kelly quickly formed the view that she was inept and unqualified, although she had been an exemplary officer for almost a decade. He deliberately engaged in behaviour designed to “undermine, discredit and belittle” her. He had junior officers question her about her sex life. He needlessly booked Howard in for extra training, and ordered junior officers to investigate if she was absent through illness, by sending a marked police car to her home and stalking her on Facebook.  In isolation, these incidents might have been viewed as an inappropriate nuisance. Together, they made it clear that her boss was trying to create an environment where it was impossible for Howard to succeed. In time, she felt humiliated, was frequently reduced to tears, and constantly uncomfortable. When she saw a way of escaping the situation – by joining CO19, the Met’s elite armed response unit – her application was blocked by Kelly and other superiors. Then, when Howard made a formal complaint, the investigating officer was pressured by her superiors to remove any mentions of sex or race discrimination, and none of Kelly’s actions were found to constitute misconduct.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of this case is that, after making a number of misguided and damaging decisions at lower levels, the Met chose to continue to victimise Howard when she brought a claim to the Employment Tribunal.  In a bid to deflect attention from its failings, the Met alleged Howard had been arrested for assault and possessing child pornography. The assault claim, involving her husband, was later dropped. The “child porn” was of a photo she had shared with him of their sleeping six-year-old daughter. 

This kind of retaliation and victimisation is all too common, and it’s one reason my firm tries to keep cases private and settle – it means our clients need not face another level of abuse from their employer.  But retaliation is real, and it scares a lot of people with legitimate claims.  It’s just as unlawful as the initial discrimination. Employers are categorically not allowed to punish employees for securing their legal rights.  

It was a wrong move for Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe to “brush off” Howard’s mistreatment by his officers as “insignificant”, to fail to express any regret, to describe the case as just “one incident” involving “one officer”, and to tell Londoners to keep “a sense of balance”. The person at the top of any organisation does best by taking responsibility, not denying it.  For decades the Met, despite some progress, has been beset with racism and sexism, acknowledged in a slew of public reports.  It remains overwhelmingly dominated by white men, a culture of bullying, and broken reporting mechanisms.  The only way to get to the bottom of such deeply seated problems is good leadership.

Meanwhile, it will take people like Carol Howard to keep the Met accountable and open the doors of change.  It’s been our experience in other cases of unfair treatment at work that they can benefit more than the people who bring suit.  Organisations faced with a lawsuit are often forced to re-examine and amend the way they do business, potentially saving future employees from mistreatment.  Whenever we can, we try to build benchmarks for institutional reforms into our settlements. Though the Met has resisted in this case, the tribunal mandated that it must fully review its Fairness at Work procedures. This will go some way to making Scotland Yard practice what it preaches in terms of racial and gender equality.

This is a particularly upsetting case, as the Police—the primary means by which citizens interact with the law—should uphold the highest standards of fairness and accountability, not try to avoid the law they are sworn to uphold.  But many valuable and otherwise well-run organisations still discriminate or treat employees unfairly.  In the end, the only way to make sure you get the fair treatment you deserve may be to stand up for yourself – and to know that the law is powerful and will back you up.