First openly gay man to lead a UK police force doesn’t want it to be an ‘historic moment’

·8-min read

Adrian Hanstock, QPM has been named the first out gay man to lead a UK police force, serving as temporary chief constable of British Transport Police. For PinkNews, he reflects on his experiences.

Thirty years ago, I was a recently-promoted sergeant working in a small East Midlands mining town. After one particularly gruelling late shift, the team were having a well-deserved drink in the bar above the police station. “Ice, Ice Baby” was blaring from the CD player and its repetitive bassline thankfully prevented anyone else from overhearing the question I had long-anticipated and also long-dreaded.

“Are you gay?” was the straightforward query from a slightly drunk, but bold and confident PC.

“Why, are you interested?” was my equally brazen reply. He wasn’t as it happens, but that 10-second conversation signalled that my five years of professional subterfuge had come to an end. I had been “outed”.

Years earlier, as a 19-year-old with a rather rudderless long-term career plan, and certainly an unlikely candidate for a career in policing, I’d managed to land a job as a civilian researcher in the Criminal Records Office of Nottinghamshire Constabulary. I would voraciously pore over archive crime files and study the crime scene photographs, witness statements and interviews with suspects and before too long I developed a keen enthusiasm to get more involved in such an intriguing career.

There was however a potential fatal flaw to this ambition: the police service in the 1980s wasn’t renowned for its willingness to embrace difference. In a force of around 1,600 officers, female constables (then known as WPCs) had a separate organisational structure and once the quota of around 150 WPCs had been reached, the force simply stopped recruiting women.

There were even fewer Black and Asian officers in the force, and they were mainly posted to inner-city districts to help strengthen community relations following the 1981 race riots relations following the 1981 race riots. This focus was in response to the recommendations in the Scarman Report into the disorder, rather than as any determined effort by the force to enhance diversity as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, views on homosexuality and attitudes towards gay men in particular were hostile and suspicious. The thought of a gay man becoming a police officer was considered an inherent risk to the very integrity of policing itself. As was common practice with the military and most public bodies at that time, “positive vetting” was used as a means to identify and prevent gay people joining or progressing in those organisations. Homosexuality remained an absolute bar to joining the police service and vetting checks became more and more intrusive as people rose in seniority.

The rhetoric that underpinned this approach tended to argue that gay men would go to great lengths to avoid being outed and would be more vulnerable to blackmail, therefore a critical security risk. I can recall a number of depressing examples where Special Branch or Professional Standards Departments received anonymous tip offs that led to officers being restricted from public duties, had their lockers unceremoniously searched and in some cases were sacked on the grounds of engaging in “indecent or immoral behaviour likely to damage the reputation of the force”. One prominent chief constable of the time proclaimed that “…homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes are swirling in a human cesspit of their own making” and thus in one sweeping statement captured the wider societal opinion of the ’80s.

I am not sure why I felt I could somehow bypass those attitudes and controls, but I nonetheless decided to submit my application to join as a police constable. Just three weeks later, I found myself standing somewhat bewildered on a bleak, windswept parade ground wearing an ill-fitting helmet and rather uncomfortable tunic, facing an animated drill sergeant who seemed determined to prove once and for all I’d made a grave error of judgment.

Despite this ominous start, I didn’t experience any unpleasant innuendo or offensive comments as I navigated my two-year probationary period, but before too long, being in my mid-20s and with little evidence I’d be likely to get married anytime soon, the rumours and undercurrent of speculation began to circle.

One unsavoury incident did bring this home quite starkly when I was a junior detective. I returned to my office one evening to find that my desk and chair had been expertly wrapped with “Danger of Infection” crime scene tape, I imagine as a pointed reference to my perceived risk to others in an HIV-agitated but equally ill-informed society. Other than that puerile and anonymous act, I broadly escaped the type of abuse that I am aware too many others routinely suffered.

By the late ‘80s I was thoroughly immersed in my chosen career and felt I’d absolutely found my direction. I was subconsciously aware that my ‘secret’ could be exposed at any time and there was a likelihood I would be sacked, so I imagined I’d find a degree of protection if somehow, I managed to be promoted to sergeant.

One afternoon I was summoned to Divisional Headquarters to see the chief superintendent who told me that I had indeed passed the sergeants’ exam and scored within the top 200 places in the country. I was congratulated and told I would automatically be a candidate for a fast-track programme. Sadly, the spectre of positive vetting loomed once again and as I was unwilling to lie during those checks, I deliberately under-performed in the selection interview to avoid any more detailed scrutiny of my private life. Records from that period note that “…PC Hanstock has enormous potential but seems reluctant to set out his ambition and future vision at this point in his career”. Perhaps this might help answer the recent comment I saw on social media asking “what took you so long?”. I’d suggest that it comes down to confidence in the end – both in the organisation and yourself.

In the intervening years there were a number of signal events that policing recognised there might be some benefits to developing a more inclusive workforce, and a number of diversity ‘firsts’ paved the way for under-represented officers and staff to feel more optimistic.

Highly-publicised cases included Merseyside assistant chief constable Alison Halford’s challenge of unfair and discriminatory chief officer selection practices that had frustrated her further promotion, Pauline Clare’s appointment in 1995 as the country’s first female chief constable (although it was somewhat painful to learn that in her inaugural interview a journalist asked what was her favourite perfume!) and Mike Fuller becoming the first Black chief constable when he took over as the head of Kent Constabulary in 2004. And I am particularly grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside Dame Cressida Dick, the first woman commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, someone who consistently exhibits incredible gravitas and personal resilience in the face of highly publicised strategic and operational challenges.

Alongside these individual achievements, we must also acknowledge the monumental changes to national attitudes brokered by the former Lesbian and Gay Police Association (LAGPA) as well as those forces that set an important early precedent by endorsing their officers’ participation in annual Pride events, despite criticism. We remain indebted to those trailblazers that helped remove the actual and psychological barriers that implied gay people were either unsuitable for general policing, were not be trusted to undertake specialist roles and couldn’t display the qualities or values necessary to lead others.

It soon became clear that things were changing though. By the time the millennium arrived, I no longer felt threatened (in any sense of that word) and I was considerably more comfortable with who I was, so with that sense of renewed confidence I felt ready to consider more demanding roles and explore further promotion following my transfer to the Metropolitan Police Service.

Over time I held a number of increasingly challenging posts such as developing confidential intelligence with international law enforcement agencies, leading undercover and armed operations to disrupt organised crime, advising government on often-contentious stop and search policies and planning the policing arrangements for the London Olympic Games. With these opportunities came the professional experience and demonstrable successes that underpinned my successive promotion applications and set the foundations of my leadership approach over these past three decades.

So, is the appointment of a gay man to carry out the functions of chief constable another true first for policing? Maybe. Have my personal ambitions been met? Definitely. I am aware that I have been fortunate and privileged throughout my career; I certainly don’t think my younger self would have dared to imagine how much so. But is this an historic moment for policing? Well, hopefully not…

Historic is defined as “done; concerning history; of the past” but I have a great expectation that many more officers, from whatever background, will make their own mark on the future of policing and bring their unique perspectives to complex organisational problems and operational challenges. Building greater diversity in policing and police leadership is a continuing phenomenon for now and the future, not just a construct of the past.

“This is all very nice”, said one commentator, “…but is he any good at his job?” It’s a fair question and perhaps one that I am not fully qualified to answer, however I am indebted to those who spotted my potential and had the confidence to give me the chance to prove my professional strengths over the course of a lifetime’s career in public protection.

What is still clear however, is that there are still 73 jurisdictions in the world that criminalise private, consensual, same-sex activity and in the UK, crimes motivated by unjustifiable homophobia, encompassing all types of offences from verbal abuse and harassment, through to pre-meditated assault and even murder, are still prevalent. The victims escaping those crimes need confidence that they will be supported and protected by police officers that hold authentic values of tolerance, open-mindedness and compassion.

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