Leroy Logan: the man who risked everything to fight racism in the police force - from within

Hugh Muir
·13-min read
<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

One day in 1983, while working in his research lab at the Royal Free hospital in north London, Leroy Logan received a phone call. The news was bad. It was about his father, Kenneth, a lorry driver.

“Dad was parked up in north London,” he remembers. “Two police officers said he was blocking the highway. He didn’t believe he was and started to measure the distance. They took the view that – as some police officers say – he had ‘failed the attitude test’.”

The result, Logan says grimly, was that right there, in the street, in front of everybody, and while his father screamed his name and address to anyone who might help or at least bear witness, he was beaten up. Comprehensively. Beyond recognition. “I walked straight past him at the hospital,” recalls Logan, pausing to collect his thoughts.

Distraught and enraged, he did what any son would do, offering maximum support to his father. Kenneth suffered facial injuries, two black eyes – and faced charges of obstruction and resisting arrest (of which he would later be found not guilty). But what is extraordinary is what Logan did not do. He did not tell his father that some weeks before, unbeknown to all but a very few confidants, Logan had himself resolved to become a police officer in the racial battleground that was London.

Logan was torn. How could he explain to his father about the day, years earlier, when he saw a single black police officer sitting in a patrol car in an east London street, in crisp white shirt and dark uniform, and perceived him not as a quisling but as a quietly impressive figure? Or about the two white men he met at the Royal Free gym who befriended the 25-year-old Logan and turned out to be off-duty officers. Or even about his conversation with his boss, Prof Roy Pounder, who said that while his work was great, his outgoing character would never settle for life in a laboratory and maybe he should switch to something to exploit his people skills. “Have you thought of the police?” Pounder asked him. “Do I look like a white racist?” countered Logan.

What to do? He took soundings, from his wife, Gretl (then his girlfriend), and again from Prof Pounder. “She said: ‘Maybe what has happened shows why you should join, to try and change things.’ He said: ‘Even if you stop one unjustified beating …’” They tipped the balance. “I began to have a sense that there was a reason behind it all.”

Even then he could not face telling his father, who was traumatised by the police and enamoured with his son’s current job in medicine. Eventually, when his irate father called from the family home, Logan knew time had run out. “There are police officers here; they say you’re going to become a cop,” barked his father. “Oh Dad, I have been wanting to tell you …” spluttered Logan. Click, brrr. The line went dead.

In his new book, Closing Ranks, My Life as a Cop, Logan recalls the emotional toll of the decision that was both his “biggest breakthrough and biggest nightmare”. Other black officers have reached more senior positions in British policing. Michael Fuller, for example, became Britain’s first black chief constable. Pat Gallan recently retired having served as assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police. But few have navigated an ascent as twisty and strewn with landmines as Logan.

Now 63, and a father of three, he retired as a superintendent in 2013, having completed 30 years on the force. But by the end, his survival was as much an achievement as his impressive contributions to the Damilola Taylor inquiry, the fight against gang and knife crime in London, the historic formation of the Black Police Association and his high-profile role in the Met’s operation around the 2012 London Olympics.

It is enough of a thriller for Logan’s career to be the focus of Red, White and Blue, a new film by the award-winning director Steve McQueen. The ex-officer is played by the British and Hollywood A-lister John Boyega, and notably so. In a five-star review, the Guardian hailed “a performance comparable to Al Pacino in Serpico”. Logan also approves. “John just got it,” he says. “He saw me as what I was, a black man and a black cop trying to make change from within.”

Logan was born in Islington, north London, the eldest child of parents who arrived from Jamaica. But their’s was not the textbook Windrush journey. Kenneth arrived in 1954 and, having laid the groundwork, sent a ticket for Logan’s mother – an industrious, sweet-natured dressmaker called Daphne – to join him. After five years, Logan’s mother became so homesick that she returned to Jamaica, taking Leroy and his sister Hyacinth, then just a few months old, with her.

Logan spent three formative years in Spanish Town, near the capital, Kingston, and that would prove crucial. “I saw black politicians, black police officers and black doctors in Jamaica,” he says. Even at primary school, he had an enhanced view of what a black child could hope for. “I had a totally different mindset,” he says.

Fast forward 20 years, in which time Logan had done relatively well at school (where he struck up a lifelong friendship with Leee John, who would later find fame with the British soul band Imagination), had gained a place at North East London Polytechnic and had, on graduation, landed his job at the Royal Free. The next step seemed to be to climb the scientific ladder or switch to medicine itself. Instead, after securing a year’s deferment from the Met, he found himself training at Hendon and then dispatched to his first posting – his old home turf in Islington.

But life in blue was hardly easier than the decision to join. “The better I did, the more suspicious people were,” Logan says. “Why would this black guy, older and a scientist, join the job? I had some good arrests. I found one lock-up and with that we cleared up almost all of the outstanding local burglaries. I was a late joiner; I wasn’t messing around. But people were getting jealous. At Islington, someone in the secure area of the station daubed the N-word on my locker.”

There were days of foot chases and rooftop pursuits and involvement in high-profile cases, such as the capture and prosecution of the serial killer Kenneth Erskine. At the same time, Logan showed prowess as a runner in internal force athletic competitions, gaining more profile and, to some, notoriety. He had a key role in the formation of a cadet corps and secured a prized management job at the world famous Hendon Police College, where he had trained. His memoir describes how he went on to run police operations in Hackney, east London, when shootings were rife and one stretch of road in Clapton was nationally known as Murder Mile. Yet despite all this success he always seemed to be confronted by headwinds.

He applied to join the CID and, on failing to be selected, sought feedback and got it: “Your face didn’t fit.” When it became known he was seeking to become a superintendent, a senior officer approached unsolicited. “He said I should not apply; that I needed more operational experience. It was ridiculous. I think he was trying to undermine my confidence. To me, that’s how the micro-aggression side of it works. In the end I was promoted. I was in the top five of all the candidates.”

Logan carried with him the Windrush philosophy; that in Britain you have to run fast to stand still, and even faster to advance. “I thought I would have to do 150 times better than my colleagues just to get a fair shake. I was ambitious. I said from the start: ‘I’m not trying to be your friend. If we are friends, fine, but that is not my raison d’être.”

He retained that focus when pressure was applied from the other direction; the streets. “There were quite a few public order events in the early days when I was on the police line and I was called ‘Judas’, a ‘coconut’, and things like that, but I never rose to it. Of course it hurt sometimes, but I knew why I was there. I had my values, my family and, as a Christian, my faith.”

The three were sources of strength when bad things happened, but they couldn’t stop them happening. When Princess Diana visited the volunteer cadet corps, Logan was her guide, but after that high came the gut-wrenching low of feeling obliged to move on when someone started an untrue rumour – motivated, he believes, by jealousy at his rise – that he was having an affair with a cadet. “I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe anyone could stoop so low,” he says.

Then there was the coach journey he took with many other minority officers to a seminar in Bristol, during which they told researchers and each other of the slights and obstacles they faced trying to thrive as black police officers. Word of their trip leaked out. Malicious colleagues dubbed their coach, the “Wog wagon to Bristol”.

In 1998, Logan was elected the first chair of the National Black Police Association (NBPA), the body that eventually grew from that Bristol seminar, but a year later controversy hit again. This time it was an untrue story, fed to national newspapers – and again exploiting the trope of black male hyper-sexuality – that he had fathered a child with a recruit. In fact, she and her fiance were expecting a baby, which miscarried. The story appeared, minus names, in a tabloid. Logan felt it prudent to move on again. “I thought: ‘My God, these people will do anything to undermine me.’”

As he sought and achieved promotion to chief inspector, he heard rumours of an investigation. He was eventually served with a disciplinary notice claiming he had defrauded the Home Office out of £80 in his role for the NBPA. His defence team was led by the leading civil rights lawyer Sadiq Khan before he became mayor of London. When they examined the files, it emerged that Logan was probably owed about £600 in unclaimed expenses. After long and gruelling formal interviews, he was judged to have no case to answer, but Logan would not let the matter rest. He took the Met to an employment tribunal and secured not just a settlement for himself but a review of all other outstanding tribunal and civil court cases that were being pursued by black officers.

And there were many of them, for while his policing story is unique, a slew of recent books detail the travails of a generation of officers forced to deal with racism and unfairness inside the tent, and in many cases, accusations of betrayal from outside. Combined, they form a damning body of evidence.

Related: I'm an ex-officer. The Met police today looks and feels as racist as it was before Macpherson | Leroy Logan

In his excellent memoir A Search for Belonging, Michael Fuller describes the racism he faced not just as a junior officer but even as deputy assistant commissioner at the Met. Paul Wilson, a former Met superintendent and former chair of the NBPA, also won a discrimination settlement in 2010 and is also writing a memoir. Kevin Maxwell, a black and gay officer who won a tribunal case in 2013, has told his story in Forced Out: A Detective’s Story of Prejudice and Resilience.

Logan says he survived his battles. He retains a ready smile and the people skills that were first discerned at the Royal Free. In King’s Cross, where we meet, he is casual in a Berghaus jacket with black leather cap and he scans the street nostalgically. Before regeneration even seemed possible, this was his first beat as a PC.

Yet he is looking at the present, but also the future, with doubts and reservations. “It’s sad,” he says. “I think, in terms of what’s happening to black officers and relations with communities, that we are back to where we were before all the changes that followed the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. There is a toxic environment again. Look at all of the cases in the media of arbitrary stops, inappropriate behaviour when black people are stopped. I hoped we were past that. Theresa May as home secretary wasn’t great, but at least she tried to hold the police to account. Tory home secretaries before and after her have simply let the Police Federation set the tone.”

When he sued the Met, Cressida Dick acted as their intermediary. Now, she is the commissioner. He thought he knew her. Now he is less sure. “She said the term ‘institutional racism’ is not helpful and the Met is not institutionally racist. I don’t know if the culture has got to her.”

He still has links with black officers and devotes time to youth projects. But what he hears unnerves him. “I see a real hatred for police officers again,” he says. “I am shocked by the things young people say to me about the police, and the level of violence towards police officers. So many of the things we achieved are being eroded in terms of working with communities and involving them in how they are policed. And our black police officers are stuck in the middle of that.”

Perhaps what is needed is a pincer strategy: pressure from within but also from outside by movements such as Black Lives Matter. “I went on the London march in June,” says Logan, smiling. “It was great to see John Boyega and a new generation speaking out. Great to see young people of all backgrounds and colours saying ‘this is important’. That gives me hope.” Hope, he says for his children and grandchildren. That whatever they do entails a smoother path.

No officer was charged or disciplined after the awful street encounter with his father – even after charges were dropped – but, seven years after the event, Logan senior also sued the Metropolitan police, securing a settlement. And as he walked from court, very noticeably beside him was his son, by then a sergeant, lockstep in full uniform.

Logan’s parents died in 2001 and 2002, but in 2000, when he took them to Buckingham Palace to see him receive an MBE, something remarkable happened. As he went to collect the honour, Logan senior leaned over and said: “I suppose you did the right thing joining the police.” Ten words of praise and absolution.

Closing Ranks: My Life as a Cop, by Leroy Logan, is published by SPCK (rrp £14.99). To order a copy for £13.04, with free UK p&p on orders over £20, go to guardianbookshop.com