A Chat With: DCC Julie Cooke

Last year at our inaugural LCR Pride Awards, Deputy Chief Constable of Cheshire police, Julie Cooke was named ‘Ally of the Year’ for her visible support of the LGBT+ community throughout her policing career in both Cheshire and Merseyside, where she was an officer for more than 27 years, and for standing firm when challenged for wearing her rainbow lanyard, which others deemed “too political” and suggested that it may affect the impartiality required in her role.

Impartiality found itself back on the agenda in October, after the phrasing of new BBC staff policies about attending ‘controversial’ events or protests – which were quickly linked to Pride and trans rights events – came under the spotlight.

We caught up with Julie to discuss her take on the re-ignited impartiality debate and to get an update on her continuing work supporting the LGBT+ community.

Hi Julie, great to speak to you. A lot has changed in the world since we last caught up, but before we get into that, for those who may not know, can you explain what your role as Cheshire’s DCC and National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) Lead for LGBT+ entails?

“I became Cheshire DCC in February 2019 after three years as Merseyside’s Assistant Chief Constable. In my role now I have responsibility for professional standards, behaviour and various other things, all focused on ensuring we are doing things safely and professionally. Cheshire’s force is smaller than Merseyside and the challenges here are very different, operationally speaking, but it’s nice to have that change.

“The NPCC LGBT+ Lead is a national role and it sits under the diversity, equality and inclusion area of the policing business. I lead the LGBT+ strand and we are very closely linked into other networks in this area, including disability, Black and Asian Minority Ethnic and gender networks. These are made up of regional clusters and the leads of each of these come together three times a year with the National Network’s co-chairs, one of whom is Merseyside Police’s DC Tracy O’Hara.

“My role is to support these networks. Predominantly this is about looking after our own internal staff, looking at policies and procedures and making sure they are inclusive and worded appropriately. But almost by virtue of going through internal processes, you end up having links externally into the various local community groups and national and international groups who support us in what we’re doing. These connections help us to create an inclusive environment and inclusive workplace, which in turn helps us with retention and recruitment into the police service.  

“You do need to have those go-to places, certainly in a big organisation like the police force. The things that affect me as a woman are different to the things that affect somebody who is gay, or who has a disability. I think that having networks that provide support and backup is really important.

How do people react to having an ally as lead in the LGBT+ network?

“I absolutely believe that everybody should be able to be themselves and that’s why I do it, but I have been asked in the past: ‘How can you do that when you have no idea what it’s like for us?’ and I get comments on social media to similar effect.

“I can’t say that I have walked in their shoes, but I try to speak to lots of people, I try to understand and I listen. I think I have humility and I do try and really get an understanding of what it’s like for people who are different generally, because – actually – we’re all different aren’t we?

“Talking and listening is how we determine the focus of the network and that’s why some of the work that I’ve been doing is around trans inclusion, which is such a pertinent topic right now. When I talk about trans inclusion so much negativity comes back. I couldn’t imagine what that would feel like if I was trans, it’s heartbreaking. As an ally I try to say the things that need to be said and take some of that pressure off, people can say whatever negative things they want to me.

“When I get asked ‘what’s that got to do with you’ in relation to my support of the LGBT+ community, I want to say that is has everything to do with me and it could have everything to do with you. By this, I mean that you may find that your niece or nephew, or friend, or parent or child is LGBT+. You might wish that you’d have listened a little bit then, because nobody knows what the future holds.”

When the news around the wording of the BBC’s new staff policies broke, we were immediately reminded of your experience last year, relating to people challenging you wearing your rainbow lanyard. Do you think attending Pride events compromises impartiality and how did it feel to have your impartiality, as a professional, questioned?

“What was said when I was challenged about wearing my rainbow lanyard suggested that I lacked impartiality, that by wearing a lanyard I was being political. I don’t lack impartiality. From my point of view, it’s not about being political. This is all about inclusion. Yes, Pride has its roots in protest, but – in terms of police attending – it’s also an event that shows the community that we’re inclusive. I think it’s really, really important that we are present, because our community within policing is part of the LGBT+ community and the LGBT+ community is part of policing, so I think it’s absolutely right.

“People often say we don’t do that for protected characteristics, such as disability or BAME, but there just aren’t those sorts of events. Pride is attended by so many people, it crosses so many boundaries and I do believe, genuinely, that if we [the police] are there and somebody who might be from a minority group, or has autism will see us as a collective and think “they look quite comfortable being in the police. That might be a job for me too, because if it’s okay for somebody who’s LGBT+ then it’s probably going to be okay for me as well.”

What were your initial thoughts on the wording of the new BBC staff policies?

“Well there was a bit of a U-turn immediately after they were released, wasn’t there? ‘Controversial events; – what does controversial events mean? For me, Pride shouldn’t be seen in that way. It would be a huge step backwards for the police and our communities if we weren’t visible at Prides today. It would limit our ability to recruit difference from our community. My initial reaction to it all was frustration really. My view is that what I do is not political. My focus is very much about inclusion, which is outlined in a statement I have shared on social media.

“Supporting Pride, attending Pride and other LGBT+ events as an organisation, is about LGBT+ people looking around having that support. We don’t get everything right, of course, but that’s why I do the work. And that’s why I say it’s not political at all.”

So therefore it’s not a barrier to impartiality, in your opinion?

“No, I don’t think it’s a barrier to impartiality, I really don’t. Three days after the challenge of my lanyard happened I travelled to Canada, because I was speaking at the World LGBTQ Conference for Criminal Justice Professionals. There was so much coverage about the incident, it was all over Twitter and there was just so much support. While there were those suggesting that I was not being impartial, there were many more who understood why, as a professional police officer, I must give my support and so should my organisation and the wider policing community. We have a duty to build trust and confidence within the community, make sure that our colleagues feel that the police is an inclusive organisation so that they can be their best and therefore be more likely to deliver a better service to the public. When it comes to impartiality, it’s about my professional boundaries. Yes, I support LGBT+ people, but that is not at the expense of other minority groups and I still make my own decisions based on professional judgement. This applies across all professions – police, journalists – we have professional boundaries and we should make our decisions based on professional judgement.”

LGBT+ concerns and rights are still often seen as a political issue, rather than a human rights issue. What’s your take on this?

“I’m the least political person you’ll ever find. I think most of us who are in policing are not in it for the politics. We’re in it because we do genuinely want to serve our communities. And that’s where it really just breaks my heart when I hear something, or when I read some of the stuff that gets sent to me on social media. Is it not a basic human right for us all to be respected and valued members of society?

On International Pronouns Day last year I filmed a short video, just on my phone, in support of the day. It took about four minutes in all to make, including thinking up the script as I drove into work, getting a colleague to record me speaking and hitting send on the tweet. But the abuse I got for “wasting taxpayer’s money”, the people who were asking “what’s this got to do with the police?” It saddens me because as much as there are passionate allies, there are some very passionate and anti-LGBT+ people out there.

“It’s also worth saying that there are some LGBT+ people who might not have had a good experience with the police. They might think, “I called the police and they didn’t do a good job”. I know that we haven’t always got everything right. I absolutely know we haven’t. But we genuinely want to do better, because we police a community of difference. Everything that I do is trying to improve understanding, improve education. Explain what it’s like to be different, whatever that difference is. But I know that we won’t always get it right and if people don’t think they’ve had the right service from us, then they should come back to us and tell us.”

This year our theme is ‘Young At Heart’, which promotes the right for LGBT+ people to live happy, healthy and carefree lives, regardless of how they identify. How important do you think is the right for LGBT+ police, journalists and other professionals to freely attend Pride events and protests, and for allies to stand in solidarity with the community?

“In my opinion, as me – and also me as a police officer – I think it’s hugely important. I would be really concerned if we were having conversations about any suggestion of excluding police from Pride. Going back to the point that we don’t always get it right, we don’t. But I think we do get it right most of the time. We want people experiencing abuse to be able to have confidence to come forward and tell us, and for us to do something about it. And I think that us being there, visible at Pride and linked into LGBT+ organisations locally and nationally, helps this. It’s really important to policing, as I said already, to show that as an organisation we are inclusive and we want to attract people from every walk of life. There’s so many benefits and it’s great fun as well – I’m looking forward to Pride in Liverpool next year!

So are we Julie – see you there!

You can follow DCC Julie Cooke on Twitter here.

You can find information on reporting hate crime in Merseyside here and in Cheshire here. In an emergency, always call 999.

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