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Suffolk's highest ranking gay police officer, Richard Burton, on making a difference for the LGBT+ community

This was more than the usual first day nerves. As a student police officer with Suffolk Constabulary, Richard Burton was beginning a job that was his childhood dream but he was tip-toeing towards a subject that made him hesitant.

The then 19-year-old was in a getting to know you morning with about 15 others in an exchange of breezy chit chat.

The conversation was gliding towards one key detail though and emotions stumbled.

Richard Burton is temporary chief inspector for South Suffolk Local Policing Command
Richard Burton is temporary chief inspector for South Suffolk Local Policing Command

Richard is gay. He came out to his family aged 18 and was in a relationship.

But as a gay man, you know that throughout your life you will face a tightrope social dilemma of whether to clarify your sexuality or say nothing.

You learn to read people and anticipate their reaction before you take the plunge.

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

Sometimes there is safety in the veil of silence but it can be a sad and lonely protection.

Remembering those first hours in the job, Richard said: "My initial apprehension shone through when I referred to my partner.

"I didn't want to refer to my partner as being he. It was really hard to gauge the best time to disclose that because I didn't know these people.

"It was only a few days after starting to get to know them and having those conversations that I subtly dropped in my partner being male and referred to as he."

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

He smiles: "I think the comment from one of my female colleagues was 'oh, all the good looking ones are gay' and took it in really good spirits and we had a laugh about it.

"I was totally accepted, supported and had no issues whatsoever with any colleagues at that point.”

That support continued over his career and empowered Richard to be himself as he rose through the ranks at Suffolk Constabulary.

As temporary chief inspector for South Suffolk Local Policing Command, the 37-year-old is the highest ranking gay police officer in the county.

In his role as co-chair of Norfolk and Suffolk Police LGBT+ Network, he has supported colleagues from the community who may be struggling and helped drive change as a critical friend of the force to push for improvements over inclusivity.

Richard said: "It’s ingrained in me, having been out since I joined the organisation I do feel really comfortable in my own skin. I also feel very fortunate and don’t take it for granted.

“I went through my own challenges as a youngster - at school, the suspicion I was gay, having to defend and not being out at the time - I’ve never forgotten that.

“In policing we should be the organisation that leads the way when it comes to stamping out any societal issues that involve any element of homophobia, transphobia and I think that’s where my passion comes from.

“I’m just passionate about making a difference for the community that I’m part of.”

Career ambitions

Skulduggery, a glimpse behind the thin blue line, a who’s who of guest stars and the endearing PC Reg Hollis - TV police drama The Bill was a screen sensation in the 80s and 90s.

Richard, who grew up in Terrington St Clement near King’s Lynn, was addicted to the show in his teenage years, having nurtured an ambition to be a police officer since he was just six-years-old.

He laughs: “My family to this day will talk about me always wanting to be a policeman when I was really young and that aspiration got stronger as I grew up.”

As a youngster, his eyes were fixed on the excitement of flashing blue lights, sirens, police cars and locking up the bad guys.

In his teenage years though he would witness crimes in his community such as fights outside clubs, cannabis smoking and shoplifting and wanted to play a key part in stopping it.

He longed for the ultimate goal of being a police officer - making people feel safe.

And then there was The Bill.

“I used to watch it religiously and knew all the characters’ names,” he grins.

“Having joined (the police), there are a lot of similarities and then realising a lot of it was for entertainment. You don’t see the more mundane parts of the role such as the paperwork and behind-the-scenes.”

Although being open about his home life caused some apprehension before starting his police training, he was determined to fulfil his ambition.

And Richard has done so in spades, having held nearly every role possible in uniform as an inspector.

Richard during his passing out parade after successfully passing his two year probation in 2008. Picture: Submitted
Richard during his passing out parade after successfully passing his two year probation in 2008. Picture: Submitted

The first response team he joined as a new independent officer was in Stowmarket in 2007.

The thrill of that first blue light response - something he had always wanted and couldn’t believe he was actually doing it - still stands out.

He had been alerted to a suspected fraud at a high street bank in the town.

“I remember the adrenaline going so much with driving on my own, with blue lights and sirens that I had to pull over and stop and update the sat nav to make sure I didn’t get lost,” he admits.

“It was a grade one back then - it’s now called a grade A which is immediate response - your highest priority. I remember thinking I’m on my own, in a car, going to my first grade one. It was just surreal.”

After more than three years in Stowmarket, Richard became a tutor constable to tutor new officers and then joined a response team in Ipswich.

At that point he sat his sergeant’s exams.

He went for his sergeant’s promotion process in 2013, was successful and was posted to Sudbury as a response sergeant.

“You’re almost like a first line manager for all of the PCs,” he explains. “I was responsible for everything to do with those officers when it comes to their performance, welfare, day to day I would brief the team as to what the requirements were for that shift and I would be their direct report supervisor.”

Later he was posted to Martlesham Police Investigation Centre as a custody sergeant.

In 2016 he started carrying out acting inspector duties in custody, overseeing everything that happens at the PIC.

He was later promoted to inspector and transferred to Ipswich as a duty inspector, dealing with high threat, harm and risk incidents, authorising powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act such as premises searches and dealing with complaints from the public.

Richard in 2019 when he was locality inspector in Ipswich Central. Picture: Submitted
Richard in 2019 when he was locality inspector in Ipswich Central. Picture: Submitted

In 2019, Richard applied for a temporary chief inspector job and, although he was unsuccessful, to help him progress he was moved to the central SNT (Safer Neighbourhood Team) as an inspector for a year.

He then became a tactical firearms commander and was posted to the control room for three years.

Last November he began his current role and is the operations manager for South Suffolk leading a number of inspectors, sergeants, PCs and police staff to meet the needs of communities, improve performance and hold officers to account to deliver priorities.

On his varied career so far, Richard said: “This is the great thing about policing, you can move to different roles within the organisation which I know in a lot of other sectors you can’t.”

Bury St Edmunds Police Station. Picture: Richard Marsham
Bury St Edmunds Police Station. Picture: Richard Marsham

Tackling prejudice

“There are two queers in a bar ….” It was the first line of a joke between colleagues at Bury St Edmunds police station.

Richard was there at the start of his career in his tutorship.

He was filing some paperwork in the custody office and overheard colleagues laughing around, with one making the joke.

But instead of a punchline, it hit a nerve with Richard.

“I thought clearly he’s not directing it at me,” he remembers.

“It’s a joke with colleagues but bearing in mind I was in my first 10 weeks of being in the organisation on patrol, my fears were is he homophobic, has he got an issue with gay people, is this something shared with colleagues across the organisation? I kept these thoughts to myself.”

His eagle-eyed tutor spotted something was wrong when he overheard the joke.

“I brushed it to one side and said ‘I’m fine’ but it had got to me,” he said. “I wanted to make an impression, I was there to prove myself, I didn’t really know anyone in the organisation so I suppose I didn’t feel overly confident in challenging. I was 19-years-old.”

Unbeknown to Richard though, the tutor asked to speak to the individual privately in another room and told them the joke was inappropriate and someone had overheard it.

Reading between the lines, the individual offered to apologise to Richard and was mortified.

“The tutor then told me that afterwards and it really reassured me,” he said. “It really made me think that that behaviour shouldn’t be tolerated and it isn’t tolerated.”

That was the only time in the 17 years he has worked at the force he has had an issue among colleagues.

Out on the beat, an incident that sticks out was when Richard arrested a man for a public order offence.

While waiting to be booked into custody at Ipswich police station, the man began insulting Richard.

“I remember holding my hand infront of my stab vest and he started hurling homophobic abuse towards me by the way I was holding my hand

“Fortunately a colleague from the custody block had overheard him shouting this and took him through to be booked in rather than me being subject to further abuse.

“Being honest, it can get to you to stand there and think you are criticising who I am as a person. He probably had no idea what my sexuality was.”

Knowing he is supported at work has empowered Richard to challenge prejudice even outside of his job.

In 2016, after the celebrations and positivity of Suffolk Pride in Ipswich, he and his friends walked to McDonald’s, where something darker awaited.

A man who was hanging around outside with some younger girls began ridiculing two of Richard’s friends with homophobic abuse.

“I just don’t tolerate it,” he said. “I was a duty inspector back then and straight away my natural reaction was - this needs to be dealt with.”

He called 999 and told his colleagues he was witnessing a homophobic hate crime.

The man was swiftly arrested and charged with a public order offence, aggravated by hate crime.

“Bearing in mind my friends had never seen me at work, they were pleasantly shocked by how I had gone into action and stood up for them and were really pleased it had been dealt with,” he said.

Norwich Pride. Picture: Submitted
Norwich Pride. Picture: Submitted

Support network

Through his work as co-chair of Norfolk and Suffolk Police LGBT+ Network, Richard has taken the responsibility to be the voice of underrepresented groups within the community including trans people.

He has regular conversations with senior officers about the importance of representing all elements of the community and about hate crime so officers and staff are educated about the challenges facing trans people in terms of their isolation and vulnerability.

The staff support network, which he leads with Norfolk colleague Beth Davies, was founded in 2005 when there were few out gay officers.

Back then it was called the GPA (Gay Police Association) and was designed to help officers and staff who identify as LGBT overcome barriers and ensure there were people to confide in from shared backgrounds.

The network has evolved over the years and is a critical friend to the force to provide advice, guidance and share any concerns about the organisation.

It offers confidential support to anyone who potentially can’t speak to their own line manager such as those who are not out at work and could be struggling with their mental health as well as anyone who has witnessed any negative cultures or behaviours.

“I’ve been in the network since I pretty much joined initially as a member,” Richard said.

“As it’s evolved over the years I get approached quite a lot in terms of policy and procedural changes in the organisation as part of equality impact assessments so we’re able to have a really strong voice.”

In terms of specific change, he points to the national police network and, working with them, they brought out a trans tool kit of guidance to help colleagues who have either transitioned or looking to.

“As a result we did have somebody who identified as trans, had seen this tool kit and spoken to their line manager. It was a really good news story because they had massive concerns about the reaction of their team and of their line manager.

“They had already had the challenges of what happened at home with telling family but because they accessed this tool kit they knew they could come to the network so I was approached directly and I was able to give advice to the line manager, reassure them that what they had done was spot on and just provide ongoing contact."

Richard even set up a hate crime training day for community officers, delivered by LGBT+ anti-abuse charity Galop, which had never been delivered in Suffolk before.

Having spoken to the force’s positive action recruitment advisor, who is the network’s secretary, Richard knows there has been a significant increase recently in people applying to work for Suffolk Police who are open about their sexuality.

For some LGBT+ people though the mental barriers remain and there may still be a reluctance to join the police force.

For them, Richard’s message is clear.

“I can confidently say for Suffolk Constabulary we are a fully inclusive and diverse organisation.

“I know all the way up to the chief constable there is a drive to ensure equal opportunities, diversity and inclusivity and I know that runs through the entire organisation.

“All the roles I’ve gone through and the progression I’ve made, I’ve been fully supported as a gay man, I feel empowered and I’m really confident any person who joins will have exactly the same experience in terms of that ongoing support and being themselves in the workplace if they choose to be.

“I definitely don’t make that statement lightly.

“When I say I feel empowered, even though I have my senior officers and chief officers that hold me to account, I still feel confident that I can raise and discuss any issues with them and I don’t feel like I have to tell them what I think they want to hear.

“They’re very open about listening to any changes that are needed and that is why I enjoy working for the organisation so much.”