The writer is former Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary
The comforting euphemism that the British police are there to “keep the peace” disguises a harder reality: that their paramount role is to maintain the state’s monopoly of the use of force. We require our police to use force to keep the rest of us safe. It can be a risky, unpleasant job, made more difficult by a 20,000 fall in police numbers (only slowly being reversed); and having to deal with many seriously mentally ill people.
Those on the front line, arresting a dangerous suspect, in riot gear facing a hostile crowd, or patrolling on foot, are overwhelmingly young (18 is the minimum age). They are also given a degree of autonomy without parallel in most walks of life. Do they intervene in a given situation? Do they give a warning, or make an arrest? (How would you like to decide when to shoot?)
Each decision is one for which the individual officer is in law responsible. How they respond will depend on their own character, their training, their immediate supervisors, and their peer group, which adds up to that most powerful, but elusive of influences, the culture in which they work.
It is here that things have gone wrong for parts of the Metropolitan Police — different squads, even different shifts from the same station. I have long been struck by the astonishing variation in the performance of otherwise similar local institutions — schools, prisons, and police stations. This is usually explained by differences in local culture.
That was the key conclusion of the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) into the appalling conduct of officers at London’s Charing Cross Police Station, in their report this week. This included texting a female colleague to say “I would happily rape you” among a litany of racist, homophonic and misogynistic comments.
This comes on top of the truly horrific murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a serving Met police officer, Wayne Couzens. The IOPC now report that nearly 60 per cent of all their corruption investigations are for abuse of position for a sexual purpose. The occasions when crooks and officers were changing large wads of money are rare these days, but the abuse of power highlighted by the report is terrible. It cannot be excused by complacently suggesting that it’s just a “few bad apples”. Systemic monetary corruption was only cut when the stakes for the bent officers became too high. The same has to happen now.
The IOPC acknowledge that the Met is taking action, including the review by Baroness Louise Casey, who is likely to get to the bottom of the force’s cultural problems, if anyone can. But, they say, “more is required”.
A change of culture has to be led from the top but pushed all the way down — as I found when implementing the Lawrence Report. It requires relentless attention at every level to bullying and group think, better protection for whistleblowers, and the analysis of as much granular data as possible. (That’s how failing schools are identified).
Policing in a democracy is one of the toughest jobs going. It’s now, rightly, become more difficult, with audio and video recording of suspect interviews, CCTV everywhere, and a much more powerful system for inspection and the investigation of complaints. Meanwhile, society has become more polarised, with social media amplifying difference.
Despite current impressions, the quality of officers, their diversity, and their overall behaviour have greatly improved from the days when the Home Office, parliament and the media turned a blind eye to police failings. It was only 25 years ago that a very senior officer told me that “there is such a thing as noble force corruption” — an unbelievable idea, in my book.
The police are often in a situation where they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. In 1999 the Met (and I, as their Police Authority) got bashed for the allegedly “soft” policing of a demonstration. For the repeat demonstration eleven months later, the police were much tougher, (with my approval), “kettling” key miscreants. We got bashed for that too.
Similarly, Cressida Dick, Met commissioner, was heavily criticised when her force initially declined to investigate rumours of No 10 parties, and then again when, with clear evidence, the force decided they would investigate. Readers should know that I have witnessed Dick’s work since the mid-90s and have a high regard for her. In the current climate, not even the Archangel Gabriel would escape criticism.
It’s 60 years since the last Royal Commission on the Police, which led to the current 43 forces in England and Wales. There is a case for merging some of the smaller forces, and there may be calls for another Royal Commission, which could tackle what lies behind declining public support for the police.
But both would take years, and be diversions from the key, more difficult, and urgent task of leadership at every level — changing the local cultures so that another Charing Cross, or another Couzens, will not go unnoticed.