There is something rotten in the state of British policing. And it will tarnish the majority of decent officers until it is rooted out, and unless police leaders stop closing ranks against anyone who dares to ask what is going on.
The charge sheet against the Metropolitan police, which this week was placed in “special measures” by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, reads like something from the most cynical crime drama. Bigotry, racism, grotesque messages shared on WhatsApp, a bungled investigation into the killings of four gay men, and the murder of Sarah Everard by PC Wayne Couzens, who Scotland Yard admits it would have hired even if it hadn’t missed vital clues to his criminality. Plus, 69,000 crimes are going unrecorded each year, according to the watchdog.
What has gone wrong with forces which used to command such public respect? Greater Manchester, Cleveland and Gloucester are in special measures too. One police sergeant summed up the situation by referring me to the title of a book by former Met officer Iain Donnelly, Tango Juliet Foxtrot — which is code for “The Job’s Fucked”.
Trust is the most precious commodity in a model of policing by consent, yet it has been eroding for years. My neighbours in London shrug if they are burgled, assuming that the police won’t care. Our local police station closed down years ago. The kind of bobby I met when I worked in the borough of Lambeth in the 1990s, who knew all the kids in his patch, seems to have vanished. Today’s officers walk in pairs and avoid eye contact.
This defensiveness is what happens in an organisation which is overwhelmed and badly run, where leaders seem aloof from a rank and file who are struggling to compensate for cuts in other public services — threadbare probation units, courts with a two-year backlog and people with mental health problems living without adequate supervision.
Every officer I have dealt with personally has been exemplary. But read the multiple police blogs which have sprouted in recent years and you glimpse a system which is hobbled by ageing IT and buzzwords, struggling to adapt to a world in which fraud makes up half of all reported crime.
At the heart of the challenge is leadership. Too often, the Met has felt like a closed shop, unaccountable and distant from the public. It spent years pursuing allegations of sex crimes made by the fantasist Carl Beech, cheered on by the MP Tom Watson, against men such as the war hero Lord Bramall. It refused to investigate the Downing Street parties, then changed its mind, without properly explaining why. Even worse is its inability to root out what Sir Stephen House, the current acting commissioner, says are more than “a few bad apples”. Its labyrinthine misconduct procedures mean it cannot even sack officers swiftly.
The consequence is that we view everything through the prism of distrust. The heroism of officers who shot dead the Islamists who killed Fusilier Lee Rigby on a London street in 2013, and the London Bridge attackers in 2019, probably saved countless other lives. But the murder of Everard has shattered our faith.
This calls for comprehensive overhaul, not just tinkering. The next Metropolitan Police Commissioner will need to take a hatchet to HR processes, bring new blood into a senior leadership team, which sometimes sounds as if it’s settling old scores, and learn lessons from forces that are better-run. The division of England and Wales into 43 separate police forces can make reform tricky, but it also offers the chance to compare tactics. A study by the think-tank Policy Exchange in 2021 found that the Met had the highest stop and search rate compared to similar forces, but the lowest rate of arresting drug dealers. Bill Bratton, former New York police chief, used to pore over data of this kind.
Ministers, in turn, must consider whether the Met is too overstretched to continue its national role as counter-terrorism lead and review the current accountability mechanisms, which have trapped the Met in a noxious blame game between the Conservative home secretary, to whom it is accountable on national matters, and London’s Labour mayor, to whom it reports on local policing. On Wednesday, Home Office insiders accused mayor Sadiq Khan of having been “asleep at the wheel”.
Law and order is too important to be politicised. The Police, Crime and Sentencing Act has given police powers to quash protest which go beyond what many senior officers had asked for and which will further erode public trust. This week, officers removed sound equipment from Steve Bray, a Stop Brexit protester who irritates everyone outside parliament, but is harmless. He now faces prosecution.
Back on the streets, the PCs I chatted to this week remained stoic. I am more sympathetic to them than ever having read Blue: Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces by John Sutherland, who served in the Met for 21 years before suffering a nervous breakdown. The book contains not a shred of self-pity, just searing insights into the violence, complexity and sometimes boredom of policing our capital.
Still, there are reasons for hope. Fifty years ago, Sir Robert Mark arrived at Scotland Yard with the stated intention of “catching more crooks than we employ”. He rooted out hundreds of corrupt officers and set the Met on a new path. That’s what we need now, so that we can once again trust the police to carry out their fundamental duty of protecting us from harm.