TOP OF THE FORCE
Denise Milani, the most senior black member of police staff in the UK, is the Director of Diversity and Citizen Focus for the Metropolitan Police, driving their diversity agenda. She tells Afua Adom about her rise to the top, her career highs and what she would do if she weren’t in the police.
I come from a very normal African-Caribbean background. I grew up in northwest London, and I still live there now. I have two children, a boy and a girl who I love dearly, who both have special needs. My daughter went to Cambridge and got a first in politics, sociology and maths. She’s now on the fast-track scheme in the civil service and is a wheelchair user. My son is in a centre to help him with his dyslexia. I was a single parent for 10, 15 years, the best part of their upbringing, and I brought them up single-handedly.
FULFILLING MY AMBITION
I always wanted to be a police officer. My parents moved here from Jamaica, where my mother was a teacher and my father was in the police force. I wanted to join, too, but my parents took me aside and said, “We have never stopped you doing anything, but we won’t allow you to join that racist, sexist organisation.” So I went to uni, thinking if I couldn’t be a police officer, I’d like to be a lawyer. But after I studied English, I changed my mind and decided to become a teacher. I found myself teaching at my old high school in Brent for seven or eight years and then took time out to have a family. Upon my return to teaching I thought I could be a headteacher but moved over to work in local government on policy. I worked for the Employers Organisation for ten years, and during that time I was the most senior African-Caribbean person working on leadership in local government. During my time there I met with members of the Black Police Association about the recommendations that were made in the Macpherson report into Stephen Lawrence’s death. I was offered a six-month secondment at the police force to deliver on one of the recommendations, which was to set up a model that would help increase the number of ethnic-minority police officers the Met employed. They asked me to stay on, and over the years I’ve had four promotions that have taken me to director level.
MY WORK LIFE
In my role as Director of Diversity and Citizen Focus, I am responsible for the strategic direction the police force takes with regards to its diversity and equalities work and also its customer focus, which is how it treats Londoners and how it behaves operationally. I was never meant to be a bobby on the beat. I find it ironic that I have a penchant for the police force but I was never an officer. I feel that I have greater influence doing what I do now, but I often wonder, had I been an operational police officer, if I would have made it to where I am today.
In my job I have had many more highs than lows. One was being voted the GG2 Leadership and Diversity Awards 2010 Woman of the Year. Another was in 2004: I went to a conference on policing in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela opened the conference and wanted to meet those of us from the Met. I’m not normally fazed by people, but he gave me goosebumps. It’s like he has an aura around him that’s supernatural. We had the privilege of going to Robben Island, where he was held captive, and we visited the actual cell where he spent 28 years.
MY PLAN B
[If I hadn’t joined the Met, I might have been] a wedding planner! I am an incurable romantic. I adore anything to do with style, clothing, getting people together or food. I just love the concept of weddings. I’m proud to say that I’m not alone – my daughter is the same! Nothing makes us happier than being wrapped up on a cold Saturday afternoon watching The Wedding Channel.