The home secretary, Priti Patel, spoke this week at the annual conference of the Police Federation of England and Wales in Manchester. ‘Nobody does a harder job or a better one than the police,’ she said. ‘And no one does more, in my view, to make our country great. And nobody gives greater public service.’ The opening section of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which received royal assent last month, enshrines a new ‘police covenant’. Introducing the idea in February 2020, Patel said:
Too many officers are paying the price for their astonishing devotion to public duty … This covenant is a pledge to do more to recognise the service and sacrifice of our police and to deliver the urgent practical support they need.
Under the new act, the home secretary is obliged to provide an annual report to Parliament setting out the ‘health and well-being’ of the police. It must say whether they ‘are at a disadvantage compared to other persons’. (According to a recent survey, there are ten jobs in the UK more dangerous than being a police officer, including nursing, driving a taxi and farming.) What events might a covenant report for the past year have considered?
In March 2021, a member of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command of the Metropolitan Police kidnapped Sarah Everard by showing his warrant card and handcuffing her. He strangled, raped and murdered her, crimes for which he was sentenced to life in prison. At a peaceful vigil to remember Everard, police manhandled women to the ground and placed them in handcuffs.
On 30 April 2021, a former probationary police officer was sentenced to four years and four months in prison for having been a member of a proscribed terrorist organisation, the neo-Nazi National Action.
On 6 December 2021, two police officers were each jailed for two years and nine months for taking photographs of two murdered Black women at a crime scene they were supposed to be protecting, and sharing the pictures on two WhatsApp groups (one containing 41 officers).
Barely a week goes by without news of another police officer facing serious charges or further malpractice. There is also evidence of increasing prejudice in the force. The disparity between the stop and search rate for Black people and white people is higher than it was at the time of the Macpherson report, which in 1999 found the Met to be ‘institutionally racist’.
The police have consistently failed women who accuse officers of domestic violence. In 2019, Alexandra Heale’s reporting for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (which won the Paul Foot Award in 2020) uncovered seven hundred complaints against officers for domestic abuse in the previous three years. The allegations were taken less seriously than in cases where the person accused wasn’t a police officer. The Centre for Women’s Justice made a super-complaint in March 2020.
On 15 June 2021, the Independent Panel Report into the murder of Daniel Morgan in 1987 was published. The Panel found the Met ‘institutionally corrupt’ because it had failed to investigate the case properly and continued to cover up repeated mistakes, just as his brother Alastair Morgan had been saying for 34 years.
On 1 February 2022 an investigation focused on constables at Charing Cross Police Station revealed homophobic, misogynist and racist comments in WhatsApp and Facebook chats. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, sought the resignation of the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, having ‘made clear’ to her ‘the scale of the change … urgently required to rebuild the trust and confidence of Londoners in the Met and to root out the racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, discrimination and misogyny that still exists’.
Given all this, the home secretary’s concern that the police are ‘disadvantaged’ seems misplaced. Handing them yet more discretionary powers will only invite further prejudice against oppressed and marginalised groups in society.
The notion that the police need even more powers over protesters, as they have been given by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, is nonsense. In Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest, Morag Livingstone and I show that the police have consistently used excessive force against protesters over the last forty years and have very rarely been held to account.
Under Margaret Thatcher’s government, without Parliament’s knowledge, the police and Home Office created a secret public order manual. The first victims of the new paramilitary tactics were printers at Warrington, picketing to save their jobs in 1983. They were followed by the miners at Orgreave in 1984, when the BBC reversed the footage to suggest the miners and not the police had started the violence that led to police horse charges. There’s a direct line from the way the police treated the women at Greenham Common to the violent action at the vigil for Sarah Everard. We need a covenant to protect protesters.