When PC Carol Howard won her employment tribunal for race and sex discrimination against the Metropolitan Police it made national headlines.
Carol Howard wanted to be a police officer from the age of seven. “My mum watched every single police drama: Cagney and Lacey, CHiPs, stuff like that,” she says. “I used to sit there and think: ‘God, I really want to do that.’”
Growing up in Peckham in the 80s and 90s, she was acutely aware of the black community’s distrust of the police – she remembers her uncles complaining about getting stopped and searched – but at the age of 14 she arranged to do work experience at her local police station and found herself hooked. At 18, she became pregnant but remained determined to fulfil her dream and joined the Met as a station receptionist at 21, training as an officer three years later.
She ought, you might think, to have been the perfect advertisement for the diversity and inclusivity of the force. Yet last week an employment tribunal found that not only had PC Howard been discriminated against because she was a black woman, she was then victimised for complaining about that discrimination. The Met was then caught trying to smear her in a bid to deflect attention from its failings in the case, after allegations that Howard, 35, had been arrested for assault and possessing child abuse images surfaced in the press.
The tribunal ordered the force to pay her damages of £37,000 and gave the Met an almighty dressing down. The assault claim, involving her estranged husband, was later dropped, and the “child porn” was of a photo she had shared with him of their sleeping six-year-old daughter. The smear campaign, concluded the tribunal, was part of a pattern of behaviour that was “insulting, malicious and oppressive”. The actions of acting Insp Dave Kelly, who singled Howard out for a year-long campaign of discrimination, were deemed “vindictive and spiteful”, and the force’s failure to apologise was considered to have added insult to injury. That the Met removed evidence of racial and sexual discrimination from documents later submitted to the panel hearing PC Howard’s case was “appalling and wholly unacceptable”. The tribunal even took a swipe at Met commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, who considered Howard’s ordeal an isolated incident, accusing him of attempting to “brush it off as insignificant”.
The judgment represents a pretty sweeping success, but at home in the flat she shares with her 16- and seven-year-old daughters in Coulsdon, Surrey, Howard – though clearly relieved – is a long way from jubilant. “I feel like I haven’t won,” she says. “I got messages saying ‘Congratulations’ and I just think: ‘Are you for real?’ This is nothing to celebrate. I didn’t want to bring an employment tribunal against the Metropolitan Police. I didn’t want to have my business disseminated in the public arena, I didn’t want to be labelled as a child predator and a criminal. I feel like I’ve been forced to do this because they refused to deal with it internally.”
The tribunal found that within a few weeks of becoming her line manager, Kelly formed the view that Howard was dishonest and not up to the job of a diplomatic protection group officer and embarked on a course of action designed to “undermine, discredit and belittle” her. Kelly unnecessarily booked Howard in for extra training, he ordered officers to investigate if she was absent through illness – sending a marked police car to her home in one instance – and blocked her application to join the Met’s elite armed response unit, CO19. In isolation, many of the incidents might have been bearable; cumulatively, they turned Howard’s working life into a nightmare, humiliating her in front of her colleagues, frequently reducing her to tears and gnawing at her confidence.
At the tribunal, Howard said she thought Kelly’s behaviour was fuelled partly by an attraction to her that she didn’t reciprocate. “I didn’t fit the normal stereotypical look of a firearms officer,” she says. “I think he was very curious and very intrigued by that at the beginning.” On one occasion he ordered officers to ask Howard if she was sleeping with another PC in the unit – shocked, they refused.
Soon after, Howard submitted a complaint about Kelly’s behaviour, and was advised not to discuss it with him. The next day, he launched an extraordinary verbal assault. “He was jabbing his hands in the direction of my face, shouting, ‘Who’s telling you not to speak to your chain of command?’” Howard says. “He was so loud and so aggressive, and I felt so intimidated by his stance, by his demeanour, the way he was shouting, and the fact he still had his Glock [pistol] on him.” She points out that the incident “was being overlooked by two sergeants and you could see that they felt uncomfortable. They knew [it] was inappropriate, yet neither of them intervened.”
“I know that throughout my PC career, the way I present myself has always been a factor,” she says. “I think I found it hard to be taken seriously because of how I looked. But there was no lowering of standards. I worked my butt off to get where I was, the same as everyone else, and I got where I got on my own merits.”
In reports from the tribunal, Howard was repeatedly referred to as the “glamorous firearms officer”. In the Daily Mail, Jan Moir sniped that she seemed to be a “highly groomed fusion of Pussycat Doll and Angelina Jolie”. It was a damning echo of the sexism her case set out to fight.
“I want to be taken seriously,” Howard says. “I worked hard to get where I am. The focus of attention shouldn’t be on what I’m wearing, or how I do my hair, or how I look, it should be on the fact that what this organisation has done is unacceptable. It’s got completely nothing to do with my job and the fact I have dedicated 13 years of my life to safeguarding the streets.” Police forces, she points out, are supposed to reflect the diverse communities they serve.
Earlier this year, pictures of Howard that she says had been on her private Facebook page, where she was wearing a bikini, were published in the press without her permission. They were later removed, but the damage was done. “I was absolutely humiliated because I never gave consent for the pictures to be used and colleagues seem to think I did,” she says.
Howard was the only woman in a team of 70 officers at the time, and one of only 12 in the 700-strong DPG unit. Just two of those were black. In the absence of any credible explanation for Kelly’s behaviour, the tribunal judged it to be a clear case of racial and sexual discrimination. “I felt like he was trying to break me as a person,” she says. “I started to doubt my own ability because he was making me look incompetent. That spiralled into my personal life. I wouldn’t sleep, I had trouble eating, I lost weight. I realised I didn’t want to be at work because he was making my life really, really miserable.”
Desperate to avoid Kelly, she hid herself away in her locker room for hours at a time, reading on her own. Rather than walk past his office, she took to using a fire-escape stairway, walking along the roof then dropping into the building through a window. On the shooting range, she found herself obsessively checking that she had loaded her bullets correctly, even though she had. “I was putting myself under so much pressure to pass because I knew he was hoping I would fail,” she says.
Carefully arranged on a cabinet in Howard’s front room are two sets of shoulder badges, from her first role investigating child abuse, and from the DPG, guarding embassies and foreign missions around London. Above them there’s a framed picture of her team at the training centre in Hendon; she is in the front row, the one with the biggest smile. “I was so proud of myself,” she says, “especially because I was the only one that had a child.”
She and her two sisters were brought up single-handedly by their mother, who worked three jobs during their childhood. Was she strict? “Very strict! She wouldn’t allow us to hang out on the streets doing nothing, we had to be at home finding something to do.” When she got pregnant she feared she was “proving the stereotype” for a young black girl from her neighbourhood. “I thought, ‘I want to make a change and show that [despite] getting pregnant young, I can do something with myself’,” she says.
In 2010 she finally began training for what she had always wanted to do most: firearms. She remembers an instructor jokingly telling her that people were secretly taking bets that she wouldn’t make it to the second week of the tough four-week course. She warned him they should get ready to lose their stakes.
In June 2012, Howard was asked by the force to appear in the London Evening Standard for a feature on the specialist officers protecting the capital during the Olympics. At the time, she says, she assumed she had been asked because she was good at her job. But she told the tribunal she later came to believe she’d been chosen to improve the Met’s image in the wake of the police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011.
“I was disgusted they thought it was acceptable to use me as a token, to show the public that the organisation had come a long way – because here stood a black female firearms officer and in the background there were inquiries going on into the death of Mark Duggan,” she says. “It was so inappropriate – I felt so used.”
In the early days of her career, she was called up for an errand by a senior officer: transporting a middle-aged woman from Brixton police station to another police building. The two chatted a little, but only when Howard got back to base was she told that the woman had been Doreen Lawrence. “There were many officers within that building that could have taken her,” she says. “It didn’t have to be a black officer.”
The fact that she didn’t recognise Lawrence suggests she was not particularly politicised, despite the Met’s record on race. No, she says. “Race has never ever been an issue with my upbringing or within my own family. My daughter is half white, my estranged husband is white, my little sister is mixed race. I wasn’t constantly reading the papers and knowing about demos that were going on. I was just a normal person that went to work, kept their head down and got on with it.”
For all her trials with the Met, Howard is a police officer through and through. Even when describing the anguish she suffered, she often adopts the plain, prosaic language of law enforcement; several times she refers to herself not as a woman but as a “female”. Perched among the cushions on one of two large black sofas in the room, under a wall transfer of an Audrey Hepburn quote (“Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’”), she is utterly self-composed, almost detached at times. “I’m all cried out,” she offers, by way of explanation.
Only once, when speaking about the Met’s smear tactic, does her voice start to wobble: “To go to my daughter’s sports day and see parents look at me in disgust because they think I’m a paedophile, to go my daughter’s school assembly and not be able to take pictures because I don’t want other people to think I’m taking pictures of their children – it’s really, really not fair,” she says.
And then, back in control: “I felt it was a spiteful and deliberate attempt to denigrate my reputation.” She believes the arrests were carried out in revenge for the stand she made against bullying. Howard was stunned when it emerged that reports later submitted to the tribunal had been doctored to delete evidence of discrimination against her. “I was disgusted,” she says. “It felt like a complete kick in the teeth. The organisation misled me and they sought to mislead the tribunal service.
“How are you ever going to eradicate discrimination and racism from the police force if you’re going to delete the findings? I was embarrassed that I was still part of an organisation that felt, in 2014, that to have such an unfair policy in place was acceptable.”
The tribunal wasn’t impressed either. It has ordered the Met to appoint a lawyer to not only review how Fairness At Work, the internal complaints department, deals with claims of discrimination and harassment but also to investigate discrimination complaints made since January 2009 and review any changes or deletions.
Howard believes her treatment is not uncommon. Since her tribunal began she has been contacted by six other officers, some outside London, who say they have had similar experiences. “The commissioner himself said in 2012 that he wanted to be an ‘implacable enemy of racism’ and that he was going to drive racism and discrimination out of the force,” she says. “He needs to stand by his word. I don’t think he realises exactly what is happening among the senior ranks of his officers.”
The Met says it is “deeply regretful of any additional distress” caused to Howard by the press coverage of her earlier arrests, but insists information was released in the interests of openness and transparency.
Howard’s tribunal win, meanwhile, makes her future no less difficult. She seems mentally exhausted, torn between her attachment to the police and pride in its work, and the hurt the Met has caused her. People she had counted as good friends have ignored her, and she fears the publicity around the tribunal will have cost her the respect of colleagues.
“But there have been times when I have felt very alone; there have been moments when I’ve doubted how much I can actually take. I don’t shut off. Every day and every night has the same beginning and the same end, because I’m still living this nightmare.” Howard is ambivalent about her triumph. “There are no winners in any of this. This isn’t a case to be celebrated, this is a case that people can learn from.”