WHEN Florha Roles told her friends she wanted to join the police force, some of them laughed.
"They said I would face discrimination and tried to discourage me, but I was not put off," says Florha, 39, from Hulme, Manchester. "I think it is important to be part of society and that includes the police."
Florha, who was born in Nigeria, completed an access course in September which targets ethnic minority groups. It is organised and funded by Bolton Community College and Greater Manchester Police. The courses began earlier this year. So far 60 people have attended four courses in the Manchester area.
There are plans to expand provision and work in partnership with other FE colleges in Oldham and Rochdale. Other police forces are interested in adapting the model.
The courses comprise 10 weekly three-hour sessions. Aspiring applicants are briefed on the selection process and the skills needed to pass a police recruitment test. The course covers interviewing techniques, basic skills in maths and English, verbal and numerical reasoning and physical fitness.
Students test their ability through role-play exercises and group debates, and CID inspectors, dog handlers, and mounted, traffic and firearms officers attend as guest speakers.
"Some of the students have applied to the police before and failed," says PC Musharaf Miah, of Greater Manchester Police's Positive Action Team, who talks to students. "They want advice on how to improve themselves. Others have always wanted to apply but they either haven't had the confidence or have not made the time to find out about the police."
Promoting the course among communities which are under-represented and somewhat cynical of the police posed a challenge for both Greater Manchester Police and Bolton Community College.
College lecturer Loretta Davidson, whose remit includes developing new learning opportunities for minority and disadvantaged groups, runs some of the sessions.
She admits: "For the first couple of weeks, we spend most of our time trying to dispel some of the myths people have about the police. It has been hard work, because we are tackling real experiences of unjust police treatment that people have suffered in the past, such as being stopped and searched.
"But officers like Musharaf are inspiring. He will explain that certain attitudes that people got away with in the past are no longer acceptable, especially since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry."
Greater Manchester Police held meetings with community leaders and attended local forums and job centres to promote the course. Also, the courses run in inner-city locations on people's doorsteps, which makes them accessible.
The course was launched to help Greater Manchester Police meet Home Office targets aimed at increasing the number of ethnic minority police officers nationally.
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report, published in 1999, recommended forces be representative of their communities.
In 2001, Greater Manchester Police recruited 29 police officers from ethnic minorities, exceeding its target of 25. This year, its target is 30.
Ms Davidson says: "Some people do not know what is expected of them, so the course helps them to understand where they are at and what they need to do to improve their skills.
"It has generated a lot of interest because it is specialised and students can see an immediate relevance to their lives and a way into the police."
Ms Davidson adds that the public service courses commonly run by many colleges, which include opportunities within the police, are too long and too general for some students.
"This course is for older people who know what they want. The feedback has been very positive with people saying they did not realise the breadth of opportunities within the police."
PC Miah agrees: "A lot of people are not aware of the hundreds of different jobs within the police, such as the support posts in computing. Also, they perceive the police as one huge organisation with everyone taking orders like robots. I point out that we make our own individual decisions. Seeing me makes people realise that police officers are human."
Greater Manchester Police tried a number of different approaches, such as one-day workshops and a 10-day course but has found working in partnership with an FE college to be more successful.
"Working with someone else helps us tap into our local areas and brings an element of independence," says Christine Joyce, Greater Manchester Police's recruitment unit manager.
She stresses: "There has not been a lowering of standards. Although we are targeting ethnic minorities, we will also offer places to anyone else who feels they want to join."
Florha Roles attended the course at Hulme and Moss Side Community Centre. She trained as a secondary school teacher and has run her own clothing business.
Her father was a police office in Nigeria for 37 years and she aspires to follow in his footsteps. "I used to spend a lot of time in his office," recalls Florha, who settled in England a few years ago after marrying her British partner.
She applied to join Greater Manchester Police in February but failed. Staff told her about the access course so she had a chance to brush up on weak points and she is going to reapply.
"I have a big fear of failing again," she admits. "But the access course has helped me identify what I needed to work on. My main weakness was checking details thoroughly. And in a role-play situation during my interview, I was a bit slow at soothing and reassuring an irate member of the public.
"I think it was partly nerves. I am used to dealing with customers and I practically police my neighbourhood keeping an eye on the environment. It is a job I can do. I am ready and willing. I just hope I get through next time round."
Rahila Iqbal, 26, from Bolton, aspires to become a CID officer and completed an access course at Bolton Community College's main campus.
"It's my childhood dream," she says. "I have always wanted to join the police. My brother is in the RAF. I know of other Muslim women who would love to join the police as well but their husbands do not approve. My husband and family are very supportive."
Rahila applied to become a special constable in March but failed on account of her maths. She currently works part-time in a post office and is completing a humanities degree at Bolton Institute.
She will apply to join the police force afterwards. "It is important to become a positive role model in the community," she says.