‘It’s time for the police to stop virtue-signalling and start catching robbers and burglars,’ the home secretary, Suella Braverman, said at the Conservative Party Conference last autumn. ‘More PCs, less PC.’ It’s not surprising that the government’s most committed culture warrior would use her speech to launch an attack on wokery. What’s strange is that anyone could think that the main problem with the British police is a surfeit of political correctness.
Take the Metropolitan Police. In the last few years, the country’s largest police force has experienced a series of major scandals. In June 2021, an official report into the Met’s failure to solve the 1987 murder of a private investigator called Daniel Morgan accused the force of ‘institutional corruption’. Morgan was found with an axe in his head in the car park of a South London pub frequented by police officers. Despite four murder investigations and an inquest, no one has been convicted of the crime. In September 2021, a court ruled that the historic practice of sending undercover officers to spy on protest movements – carried out by a secret unit within the Met – and letting those officers deceive women into sexual relationships was ‘unlawful and sexist’. A wider inquiry into undercover policing is under way. There is also the Angiolini inquiry, which was originally intended to investigate how Wayne Couzens, a Met officer with a history of sexual misconduct, was able to abduct, rape and murder Sarah Everard in March 2021, showing his police warrant card before he handcuffed her and forced her into his car. Its remit has now been expanded: it will also look at how David Carrick, nicknamed ‘Bastard Dave’ by his colleagues in the Met, raped and sexually assaulted at least twelve women over a period of seventeen years without being prosecuted. The Casey report into ‘standards and culture’ at the Met, prompted by the Everard case, was published this month and leaves the force in what one officer called the ‘last-chance saloon’.
There are many reports of misogynistic, racist, homophobic and violent conduct by individual police officers. In 2021, one PC was jailed for belonging to a banned neo-Nazi terrorist group and another was sacked for hitting a teenage girl with learning disabilities more than thirty times with his baton. An official safeguarding review found that racism ‘was likely to have been an influencing factor’ in the strip-searching last year of a Black teenage girl wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis at school. In November, an inspection report found that a culture of ‘misogyny, sexism, predatory behaviour towards female police officers and staff and members of the public’ was ‘prevalent’ in the Met and seven other police forces. This behaviour included unwarranted stops of women, known as ‘booty patrols’. The following month, the Met paid damages to two young Black men who had been stopped and searched without cause and handcuffed for twenty minutes outside their East London home. An officer involved in the search turned out to have posted frequently in a racist and sexist WhatsApp group chat, one of many used by police officers (Couzens was in one such group chat, two members of which were jailed last year for sending ‘grossly offensive messages’). In February, a PC was jailed after tying up his female housemate with duct tape. His ex-girlfriend said he ‘got a kick out of arresting women as it was a form of restraint’.
Beyond this, the Met is failing to carry out what most people would regard as its basic job: preventing crimes, and properly investigating those that do take place. Last year an inquest jury found that detectives didn’t carry out checks that could have prevented the serial killer Stephen Port from murdering at least three of his victims. The victims’ families believe that this lack of care was motivated in part by homophobia – Port met his male targets on dating apps. Detectives also failed to take such basic steps as running his name through the Police National Computer. Last June the police inspectorate placed the Met in special measures, citing ‘systemic’ failings, with tens of thousands of crimes going unrecorded each year. Mark Rowley, the Met commissioner – the force’s most senior officer, appointed last summer after Cressida Dick was pressured by politicians into resigning – has vowed to ‘lead the renewal of policing by consent, which has been so heavily dented in recent years as trust and confidence have fallen’.
Braverman’s comments make more sense if they’re understood as a message to police officers that the government is back on their side. That’s significant, because the underlying story of British policing in recent decades is the falling out of the police and the Conservative Party. This relationship degenerated from the high point of the 1980s – when, as one former officer tells the journalist Tom Harper in Broken Yard, his book about the Met, ‘people had caravans and boats named after the home secretary’ – into barely concealed mutual contempt in the 2010s. ‘You will not find a police officer now … who would be willing to vote Tory,’ a senior member of the Police Federation, the staff association for England and Wales, told the BBC in 2014, shortly after Theresa May, the then home secretary, laid into the organisation at its annual conference (the police aren’t allowed to have a union and have been banned from striking since 1919). ‘We were the favoured group, always looked on by government as the people who did their dirty work. This is the payback, and it’s unfair.’
Strictly speaking, police officers don’t work for the government. They’re Crown servants – state employees who are meant to carry out their duties free from political interference. This is a core principle of the British approach to policing: officers are, in Rowley’s words, ‘citizens in uniform using their powers with public consent’. In practice, however, politicians have always sought to exert indirect control over the police, and, at times, to intervene directly. The Met is particularly vulnerable to this kind of meddling. Its 32,000 officers are supposed to do what police officers do in any big city. But in many respects, it also acts as a national police force. Most large protests take place in London, as do many international sporting events and a third of Premier League matches. The Met leads on terrorism and complex murder cases across the country, provides protection for royal, diplomatic and parliamentary officials, and guards the UK’s largest airport. It also operates the country’s largest PR machine for policing. As of 2020, its communications team comprised more than ninety people, running a 24/7 media desk and more than six hundred official Twitter accounts for everyone from head office to local council ward policing teams. ‘We have tremendous content,’ Scotland Yard’s head of media told PR Week in 2017.
When times are good, the Met is celebrated for its model of ‘policing by consent’, which has been exported to countries such as Australia and Canada – an echo of the British Empire’s civilising mission. When things go wrong, politicians turn on its top officials, like Cressida Dick. ‘It’s very difficult for senior officers who are closest to national politicians to strike the right balance,’ Tim Brain, a former chief constable of Gloucestershire, told Harper. ‘It’s easy if you are chief constable of Gloucestershire to provide some distance. You are not cheek by jowl with these people. But in order to get some of the top jobs you have to be on message … You have to be speaking, and to a degree thinking, the same kind of thoughts as the politicians who are likely to appoint you.’ Ian Blair, Met commissioner between 2005 and 2008, wrote in his memoirs that politicians want the police to be ‘street butlers’, called on ‘when required and invisible the rest of the time’. The commissioner is accountable to both the mayor of London and the home secretary, which becomes even trickier when they belong to different parties.
When a crisis does hit, the Met too often gives the media inaccurate information. After Jean Charles de Menezes, an unarmed civilian, was shot dead by anti-terrorism officers in 2005, Scotland Yard said that he had been acting suspiciously (he hadn’t). When Ian Tomlinson, a passer-by at the G20 protests in 2009, died after being struck by an officer, police briefed that they had been pelted with bottles as they tried to save his life (they hadn’t). When Wayne Couzens was sentenced for Sarah Everard’s murder, many people were enraged by Scotland Yard’s decision to describe him as a ‘former’ police officer (the Met only sacked him after the murder). ‘Policing is very defensive,’ a senior Home Office official told Harper. ‘But the Met are absolutely the worst.’
In the 1980s, the Met was a key part of the coalition of interests that underpinned the Thatcher government. Together, the Conservative Party, the police and the right-wing press successfully undermined the power of the unions, by legislating against them, physically attacking their members (as officers from the Met and other forces did at Orgreave and elsewhere during the miners’ strike) and persuading just enough people that this was necessary to maintain law and order. Not every officer approved of the role the police played: Dick wrote an essay during her training arguing that the Thatcher years created ‘the impression that the police had been reduced to the status of political tools’. But the Tories bought goodwill among the rank and file – and boosted recruitment – by implementing a 45 per cent pay rise soon after taking office in 1979. ‘Most of us in the police thought [Thatcher] was simply magnificent,’ Ron Evans, a former Met protection officer, told Harper.
The relationship began to break down in the 1990s. In 1992 Ken Clarke, home secretary under John Major, announced an ambitious plan to reform policing. He described the police to Harper as ‘the last great unreformed Victorian public service’: excessively bureaucratic (the Met most of all, with five senior ranks of officer rather than the usual three) and staffed with people ‘whose main job was to hold the person below them to account for their performance’ and whose ‘main obligation was to account for their own performance to the people above them’. Clarke wanted to simplify the rank structure, end overtime and introduce performance-related pay. But his reforms encountered heavy resistance. The Police Federation launched a public campaign that culminated in a rally at Wembley Arena. They got their way: the plans were shelved by Clarke’s successor, Michael Howard, in order to ‘avoid all-out war with the police’.
After Labour came to power in 1997, the Blair government offered the police a new settlement. Funding increased by a quarter between 2001 and 2010, and there were a range of new powers such as ASBOs, in return for more stringent performance targets. One sign that Labour had successfully moved onto Conservative territory was that Ian Blair was often accused of being too close to the government. ‘If you understand the psychology of the Conservative Party, they saw themselves very much as the party of law and order … and yet Tony Blair very comprehensively stripped them of that,’ Bob Quick, a former assistant commissioner of the Met, told Harper. This provoked ‘deep antipathy and resentment’ among Tories.
Other developments also contributed to the souring of the relationship. David Cameron had worked as a special adviser at the Home Office in the early 1990s, and within months of becoming Tory leader in 2005 signalled his intention to pick up where Clarke had left off: ‘You can’t be tough on crime,’ he said in a speech, ‘unless you’re tough on police reform.’ A couple of years after he became leader, the Conservatives received a series of damaging leaks about Gordon Brown’s government which could only have come from a civil servant. In November 2008, police raided the parliamentary office of Damian Green, a Tory MP and a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, in connection with the leaks, and arrested him on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office. The charges were eventually dropped, but the Tory leadership were furious that the police had arrested a sitting MP. ‘Traditionally the police enforced the law against the working classes and were seen as servants of the middle and upper class,’ a former senior Met officer said to Harper. ‘Bad enough that the police were no longer deferential to the middle and upper class, but to turn on a Conservative Party politician was seen as the Met getting above their station.’
According to Quick, who was put in charge of the investigation into the leaks, the Green affair left the Conservatives determined ‘to take the police down a peg or two’. It also made them less inclined to ignore allegations of police corruption. The ‘plebgate’ row of 2012 – when Downing Street protection officers accused Andrew Mitchell, the Tory chief whip, of swearing and calling them ‘plebs’ – contributed to this feeling. CCTV footage cast doubt on the officers’ account, while a man claiming to be an ordinary witness turned out to be a serving officer who wasn’t anywhere near Westminster that day. ‘That was the moment,’ Nick Timothy, who was special adviser to May at the Home Office between 2010 and 2015, told Harper, ‘when a lot of Tories who didn’t normally have a bad word to say about the police thought: “Hang on a second, if they do that on Downing Street, to a cabinet minister, with cameras around, and then they keep trying to set him up in different ways, what on earth do they do to people when nobody is looking?!”’ May and her colleagues, according to Timothy, had ‘a sense that the cops were out of control’.
The Cameron government announced four separate inquiries into possible corruption in the Met, dealing with allegations going back to the 1980s. Corruption is ‘endemic in policing across the world’, the 2021 report into Morgan’s murder states. It takes root, efforts are made to tackle it, then attention moves elsewhere and it takes root again. There are different forms of police corruption. Individual officers, or small groups of officers, can behave in a corrupt manner by abusing their power for personal gain. Parm Sandhu, who retired from the Met in 2019 after thirty years, recalls working early in her career with detectives who had ‘special relationships’ with local sex workers. The women were allowed to work in return for sexual favours.The first investigation into Morgan’s murder pursued a theory that he was killed over a dispute with his business partner, who had hired several serving police officers to work as security guards for the detective agency the two men ran. Investigators wondered whether the officers had conspired to kill him because they feared losing their jobs and pensions if they were found to be moonlighting. (This was never proven.)
Corruption can also be more systematic. In the 1990s, some senior officers feared that criminal gangs, many involved in drug smuggling, had infiltrated the Met. ‘It felt like the watch had gone to sleep,’ Ian Blair, who became head of Scotland Yard’s anti-corruption command in 1993, told Harper. ‘There was a smell of corruption around.’ An internal investigation, Operation Othona, found that ‘determined and ruthless criminals’ were ‘devoting a great deal of time, effort and resources’ to infiltrating the Met. Corrupt activities included officers running unauthorised checks on the Police National Computer, leaking documents and details of operations, ‘weakening’ or ‘losing’ evidence, and ‘offering protection from arrest and prosecution’ to ‘major criminals’ in return for ‘money and information’. Rogue officers were protected by ‘well-placed senior officers who were, and remained, corrupt’. Another possible motive for Morgan’s murder, never properly investigated, was that he stumbled on an international drug smuggling network involving Met officers during a business trip to Malta. He was murdered the night before he was due to be interviewed by West Yorkshire Police, who were investigating people accused of being members of this network. One witness claimed Morgan was about to sell a story on police corruption to the press. (Again, this was never proven.) In the mid-1990s the Met carried out a campaign to expel corrupt officers, but according to Harper this was ‘the last demonstrable attempt’ to do so. An inspection report last year found that its anti-corruption measures were ‘not fit for purpose’.
Then there is corruption at the level of the institution itself. The policing by consent model is meant to give officers an incentive to stick to the rules: people are less likely to see the police as a legitimate presence in society if they don’t trust them. But it can have the opposite effect. If police misconduct is so shocking or rampant that revealing it would damage public confidence, there’s an incentive to keep it hidden. Operation Othona found that senior officials were more worried about the effects of exposing corruption than about the corruption itself: ‘The very suggestion that a structured network of traitors operated at all levels within the police service had tended to bring the establishment out in an organisational “cold sweat” that had paralysed any meaningful and lasting response.’ When David McKelvey, a detective chief inspector, opened an investigation in 2006 into a major drug-dealing gang accused of having links to corrupt police officers, he received a death threat. He reported it to his superiors, and then found himself under investigation for corruption. He left the force in 2010 and sued the Met for compensation.
Each of the four inquiries begun by the coalition government related to instances when the Met covered up – or appeared to cover up – its own wrongdoing. In 2011, the government was dragged into the scandal over phone hacking by tabloid newspapers when Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor, was forced to resign as Cameron’s communications chief. After Coulson was arrested later that year, Cameron had little option but to order a public inquiry into how illegal behaviour at some of the country’s largest media companies had gone unchecked for so long. One of the Leveson inquiry’s discoveries was that Scotland Yard had known about phone hacking since at least 2006, when police raided the office of the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who worked for the News of the World, and found files relating to hundreds of people. The Met had failed to inform most of the potential victims of this. The inquiry began by examining the culture and practices of newspapers; a second part was supposed to look at potentially corrupt links between police forces and the press, but was shelved.
In 2012, a few months after the government announced the Leveson inquiry, two suspects in the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 were convicted of his murder. The Macpherson inquiry of 1997 had examined police failures to investigate the crime properly at the time, attributing this to ‘institutional racism’. But Macpherson didn’t thoroughly investigate allegations that corrupt officers had played a role in suppressing evidence. The case was reopened in 2006 after a detective, Clive Driscoll, found a stash of forgotten documents in an abandoned South London police station. Driscoll told Harper that he had been discouraged from pursuing the case by his superiors. After the 2012 verdict, May launched a review of the case, led by Mark Ellison QC. The Ellison review found that the Met knew of the corruption allegations but had failed to notify Macpherson, and that a mass shredding of documents in 2003 had probably destroyed crucial evidence.
The Lawrence case prompted another inquiry when, in 2013, a retired officer from the now defunct Special Demonstration Squad – a highly secretive undercover unit that operated between 1968 and 2008 – claimed he had been deployed to spy on the Lawrence family and gather information that could be used to ‘smear’ them. Women who had been deceived into having sexual relationships with police spies posing as members of left-wing protest groups were already pursuing legal action against the Met. But the link to Stephen Lawrence pushed May into ordering a full inquiry into undercover policing since 1968. The first part of the inquiry has already revealed that undercover officers infiltrated a number of trade unions during the 1970s, and spied for more than two decades on Celia Stubbs, the partner of Blair Peach, a teacher and anti-fascist protester killed – almost certainly by a police officer – in 1979.
The last of the inquiries, into Morgan’s murder, shows the extent to which the Met is driven by an obsession with its public image. The Independent Panel’s report, commissioned in 2013 but not published until 2021, suggests that in the years immediately after the murder, the Met just wanted to ignore the whole business. The first investigation was at best incompetent. Detectives failed to secure the crime scene or to follow up important leads. Officers who had knowledge of the case were allowed to continue socialising in pubs with the suspects. Hampshire Police carried out a second investigation in 1988, after a witness claimed at Morgan’s inquest that Met officers had been involved in the murder. But their report wrongly found that there was ‘no evidence’ for this claim. A senior Met officer was assigned to Hampshire’s supposedly independent investigation; according to the 2021 report, Hampshire deliberately failed to pursue evidence of corruption.
The Met came across new information about some of the initial suspects during the anti-corruption drive of the 1990s, and in 2001 a new investigation was launched. It was one of the most expensive reinvestigations in history, at a cost of more than £2 million, but was wound up in 2003, having failed to uncover sufficient evidence for a prosecution. In December 2004 a witness came forward with new information and in 2006 the Met opened the case for a fourth time, charging four people – including Morgan’s former business partner – with murder. A fifth suspect, a former police officer who had worked on the initial murder investigation before taking Morgan’s place at his detective agency, was charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The prosecution collapsed in 2011 after key testimony was excluded from court, partly because the lead detective on the case was found to have coached a witness. The suspects then sued the Met and were awarded damages for malicious prosecution (or, in one case, misfeasance in a public office). When the trial collapsed, just as attention was falling on phone hacking, it emerged that the detective agency had been an important supplier of confidential information to the News of the World, including when Andy Coulson was editor. Some of this information was obtained illegally from police sources. It was the possible link between the Morgan murder and one of the newspapers involved in the phone hacking scandal that prompted May in 2013 to order an independent panel to review the case.
While the Cameron government’s willingness to expose corruption at the Met marked a change in attitude, it shouldn’t be overstated. The cases were only in the public eye as a result of decades of campaigning. Morgan’s family have now been seeking justice for nearly forty years. The women who survived state-sanctioned sexual assault by police spies had to do their own detective work to track down the men they once thought were their lovers. And the four inquiries weren’t the strongest forms of action available. The Morgan inquiry, for instance, wasn’t statutory, so the panel couldn’t compel witnesses to give evidence. It began in September 2013, but it was only in March 2021 that the panel received the last of the documents it had requested from the Met. It took seventeen months for the Met to agree the terms under which documents would be disclosed. When the panel asked for a computer that could access HOLMES (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System), a national police database, the Met told the panel it would cost £85,000. The Met admitted that ‘corruption’ had prevented the murder from being solved, but refused to tell the panel what that corruption entailed.
The report concluded that ‘concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image … constitutes a form of institutional corruption.’ Or as Timothy said to Harper: ‘If enough people invest in the importance of an organisation, and feel a sufficient debt of loyalty to one another, then actually it is possible to keep things covered up, and tell lies in a systematic way, and get away with it for fucking decades.’
Another effect of the shift in the Conservatives’ relationship with the police is that they weren’t shielded from the full impact of austerity. ‘Theresa [May] didn’t want police cuts at all,’ Nick Timothy told Harper. ‘She was very upset early on because she felt completely stiffed by George [Osborne].’ Police budgets fell by 20 per cent in real terms between 2011 and 2017. Forces in England and Wales lost around 20,000 officers over roughly the same period, mostly through a recruitment freeze, along with 23,500 other staff. Salaries were also affected: Mark Rowley claimed in a recent article in the Telegraph that constables are paid almost 14 per cent less in real terms than they were a decade ago, and that increased pension contributions take a further £2000 from annual pay.
The Met initially lost around two thousand officers in the cuts. To save money, it carried out a major reorganisation of the way it polices London. The force had been divided into 32 command units, one for each London borough; since 2018 these have been merged into twelve ‘basic command units’. Under the neighbourhood policing model, introduced during the New Labour years, one sergeant, two constables and two community support officers were assigned to every council ward. Iain Donnelly, a recently retired police officer who began his career as a constable in the Met, writes in his memoir, Tango Juliet Foxtrot, that neighbourhood officers were ‘a fount of knowledge as they knew every local criminal, whom they associated with and where they could be found’ and could ‘nip issues in the bud before they escalated’. Now, Donnelly writes, much of this local knowledge has been lost. When crimes happen, there are no longer enough people to carry out the necessary tasks: looking for evidence, finding witnesses, searching for the suspect and supporting the victim. Neighbourhood policing is underpinned by the work of community support officers, but Rowley says that since 2010 their numbers have been reduced by two-thirds.
More important than officer numbers, however, is the way austerity has changed the nature of frontline policing. The closure of police stations and public-facing front counters – Scotland Yard has closed 107 front counters and sold off more than thirty police stations since 2010 – is one of the changes that gets most attention. This is due in part to a shift in the way crime is reported, since people are now more likely to use their phones. But it is nevertheless symbolic, signalling (for those reassured by police presence) a retreat from the public realm. For officers themselves, particularly uniformed constables, it also means more work. When there are fewer police stations, Donnelly writes, ‘you end up having to send a fully fit crew of police officers to deal with fairly trivial issues that are reported on the phone rather than encouraging members of the public to go to a police station.’
Another consequence of station closures is the loss of cell blocks – ‘custody suites’ in policing jargon. As a result, cells are now grouped into bigger blocks, distributed more sparsely around a district. It used to be that ‘if you arrested someone, it was a fairly simple matter of returning them to the nick, booking them in with the custody sergeant and handing them over to local investigators, who would also be based in the same building.’ Arresting officers could be back on the street in less than an hour. Today, Donnelly writes, the arresting officers often have to drive longer distances and wait in a queue for the person they’ve arrested to be booked into a cell. ‘A very simple arrest’ can now ‘take a couple of officers off the street for an entire shift’.
Police work has also been affected by a shortage of detectives. Hundreds of positions in the Met are currently unfilled, and around five thousand across England and Wales. The Met lowered recruitment standards in 2017, dropping the requirement that candidates had to spend two years as a uniformed officer on the beat before training to be a detective. Officers can now work on burglaries, assaults and robberies after just six months on the job, and rape cases after a year. Their supervisors may also lack frontline experience: since 2014, candidates from other professions have been able to enter the police at a senior level. ‘Scotland Yard has direct entry superintendents from Waitrose!’ one veteran ex-detective complained to Harper. ‘How can they possibly review how somebody handled an informant?’ (The superintendents’ and inspectors’ direct entry scheme has been paused.)
Over the last decade, the proportion of crimes solved in England and Wales has fallen sharply. In the year ending March 2020, 7 per cent of suspects were charged or ordered to appear in court, compared with 16 per cent in 2014-15. Attributing this development to a reduction in police resources alone is too simplistic. (In 2015, at the peak of the cuts, the UK’s spending on public order and safety was still the highest in Europe.) Austerity coincided with a broadening in the sorts of crime the police are expected to investigate. When she was home secretary, May told forces to make ‘modern slavery’ – human trafficking and exploitation at work – as much of a priority as violence or drug dealing. Then, in 2017, the Office for National Statistics started including online fraud and other computer-related offences in its England and Wales crime survey. This added an extra five million offences a year, doubling the recorded crime rate.
At the same time, officers have been asked to deal with the damage caused by austerity in other parts of the public sector. Cuts to drug addiction services after 2010 contributed to an increase in crack and heroin use, while a recent rise in knife crime might have more to do with cuts to youth services and support for vulnerable families than it does with officer numbers.Extremely low conviction rates for sexual assault – a group of women’s charities recently claimed that rape has been ‘effectively decriminalised’ – are linked to a lack of support for survivors, as well as prejudiced attitudes across the whole criminal justice system.
The collapse in mental health services, meanwhile, has ‘created a crisis in police custody centres,’ according to Donnelly, ‘which often become the only places available to take someone in who is experiencing a severe mental health crisis’. If a detainee says they feel suicidal, or is marked as ‘suicidal’ on the Police National Computer, an officer has to sit in their cell on what’s known as ‘constant watch’. But ‘if someone is that vulnerable, the very last place they should be is in a police cell.’ The chief inspector of constabulary warned last August that officers were spending almost a third of their time on non-policing matters, including responding to mental health crises and transporting people to A&E. Armed police were being sent to deal with cardiac arrests when ambulances were unavailable.
Donnelly believes resources are now so stretched that officers ‘avoid arresting people unless it’s absolutely unavoidable, and this leads to fewer cases being investigated and fewer people being charged and taken to court’. Some of this can be attributed to delays in the criminal courts, which have also had their funding cut. But in London at least, it’s also a deliberate strategy. In 2017, senior officers at the Met drew up a ‘crime assessment policy’: officers were ordered not to investigate hundreds of thousands of crimes a year, including burglaries and some assaults.
Harper gives the example of Bethany and Paul Eaton, whose house in Chislehurst, South-East London, was burgled while they were on holiday in 2019. When a neighbour spotted the break-in and called the police, the call handler said that since the neighbour hadn’t made an appointment, officers wouldn’t be able to attend the scene that day. When the Eatons later called the police to ask why officers hadn’t been to visit, they were told that the handler had closed the case. The Eatons were particularly annoyed because they were both former Met officers. The downgrading of burglary has proved so unpopular that police chiefs in England and Wales recently pledged that from now on officers would attend every home burglary. Some victims of crime have started turning to private prosecution firms: the UK’s largest, TM Eye, offers services in ‘surveillance, case preparation, disclosure and providing testimony’. It claims to have brought eight hundred cases before the courts, with a 100 per cent conviction rate.
Donnelly thinks there is a growing sense of resentment among the rank and file. ‘When I joined the police in 1989,’ he writes, ‘I was confident that the organisation I worked for and wider society would support me in my role.’ By the time he retired, three decades later, ‘I left a fearful, enfeebled service.’ For Donnelly, the changes of the austerity years were only the latest in a long list of examples of political interference. New Labour may have brought more money and more police powers – in counterterrorism, for instance – but it also fostered what he sees as an over bureaucratic organisational culture. Performance targets were set by distant officials at the Home Office: a fraud against a local business might not receive much attention because it would be considered too complicated and time-consuming, while the theft of a car radio – usually easier to solve – would be pursued more enthusiastically.
Donnelly also blames the Macpherson inquiry, whose finding of institutional racism was a ‘clumsy accusation’ that has ‘been used again and again by the critics of policing to suggest that every police officer in the UK is a racist; something that could not be further from the truth’. It bred among officers ‘a profound, raw sense of unfairness that the entire organisation had from top to bottom been damned because of a single badly managed investigation that then became highly politicised’. From that point on, ‘British policing lost its confidence and became a deeply fearful, risk-averse institution’ in which ‘front-line officers don’t trust many of their own leaders’ and ‘despise a lot of them as being “weak and woke”’.
Above all, Donnelly argues, it has become harder for ordinary officers to assert themselves when dealing with the public. When he worked in a senior role, he felt that constables ‘were afraid to talk to people and afraid to put anybody under even just a little bit of mental pressure’. He believes that the freedom to use one’s judgment is key – to be able to stop people in the street, ask them what they’re doing, and, if necessary, search them. Restraints on this power are one of the single biggest causes of resentment in the Met. John Stevens, the Met commissioner between 2000 and 2004, writes nostalgically in his memoirs of a time when officers could stop and search people they thought suspicious without having to provide an explanation. (Since 1984, they have generally needed firmer evidence that someone is carrying stolen or prohibited items in order to search them.)
May tightened the rules further in 2014, limiting the use of an emergency measure known as Section 60 – which allows officers to stop and search people in a designated area without reasonable grounds for suspicion – to fifteen hours at a time. She instructed police forces to make stop and search statistics public, and to devote more resources to ‘intelligence-led’ searches. Stop and search disproportionately affects people from minority ethnic groups. In 2020-21, Black people were stopped seven times more frequently than white people in England and Wales. Critics see this as proof of structural racism, but police advocates tend to insist that the practice is essential. Bob Quick told Harper that May’s restrictions on stop and search struck ‘at the core professional raison d’être of policing’, and officers ‘just withdrew in large numbers, in London in particular’.
The reason individual officers need a significant degree of autonomy, in Donnelly’s view, is that policing is fundamentally about human relationships. A good officer is ‘an expert at reading and understanding every nuance of someone’s behaviour, body language, eye contact and verbal intonation’. They can ‘tell instantly if someone is lying to them’. They ‘know what “normal” behaviour looks like and, conversely, they can identify someone whose behaviour just doesn’t look right’. Exercising this sort of judgment is difficult, since officers frequently encounter the worst aspects of human experience – more or less every policing memoir describes the smell of decomposing bodies – and work in dangerous and stressful conditions. (Like the authors of other police memoirs, Donnelly has suffered from poor mental health as a result of his work.)
Officers say that they can only exercise their judgment confidently if they feel supported by colleagues, managers and the public. The problem, as Donnelly sees it, is that they are frequently caught in the middle – between politicians who don’t understand the job, and members of the public who are too quick to criticise. The ‘final straw’ for him was ‘the shameful sight of police officers running away from protesters, many of whom were just kids, in Whitehall during the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020’. He asked an online group made up of ten thousand retired and serving Met officers what changes they would most like to see. Among the most popular responses – aside from restoring funding and rebuilding neighbourhood policing teams – were that police managers should ‘stop apologising’, ‘speak up for’ officers and ‘stop trying to appease the “woke” vociferous minority’. Tango Juliet Foxtrot, the title of Donnelly’s book, comes from the policing slang for ‘the job’s fucked.’
It might seem bizarre that after everything we’ve learned about the Met in the last few years, some police officers still think they’re the victims. But it comes back to the idea of policing by consent. If the police really are ‘citizens in uniform’, carrying out necessary if unpleasant tasks on behalf of a public whose values they share, then it follows that they need the kind of support that Donnelly and his colleagues ask for. By this logic, criticism of the police is either illegitimate or irrational. The problem must be one of perception. But what if the criticism is based on people’s actual experience of policing? In his account of the way Black communities in the UK have responded to discrimination and violence by the police, the anti-racist activist Adam Elliott-Cooper recalls the time he spent volunteering at a youth centre in a multi-ethnic, working-class part of Nottingham. He was surprised to find that the young people there were unmoved by general discussions about racism. ‘But as soon as we mentioned policing, something clicked,’ he writes. ‘Policing was an obstacle that was in their immediate reality, with stops, questioning and searches a common occurrence, making arrest and imprisonment a constant threat.’
For many of the people Elliott-Cooper writes about, being policed has never felt much like consent, more like being on the receiving end of the militarised form of policing Britain employed in its colonies. Whatever else policing might do, it’s about enforcing order – order that maintains the existing hierarchies in society. Almost half of London’s population is Black, Asian or minority ethnic, yet just 15 per cent of Met officers come from those backgrounds. Women officers remain in the minority. This disparity comes across most clearly in the different ways officers experience the Met’s internal culture. Donnelly sees its rigidity as an essential part of policing: the military-style parades and rote learning – of laws, street names, holds, self-defence techniques – at the Met’s training college in Hendon formed a ‘spirit of selflessness and teamwork … that bound us closely as a class … and underlined the strong sense that we were part of something much bigger and more important than ourselves’. By contrast, Leroy Logan, a founding member of the Black Police Association – the story of his early days in the Met was dramatised by Steve McQueen in the Small Axe series – recalls that his fellow recruits ‘saw things in a very “them and us” way, with the police being the “us” and the rest of the public as “them”’. The job ‘seemed to attract people who are quite set in their ways, very narrow in how they perceive others, and who enjoy sticking very rigidly to the occupational cultural rules of always backing up your mates and defending the Met regardless; a form of blind loyalty’.
Other former officers describe how sexist and racist banter function as a kind of loyalty test. Alice Vinten, a constable in the Met during the 2010s, was told by a male colleague in front of a group that he’d like to ‘jump her bones’. She laughed it off with an eye-roll: ‘I’d learned early on that, as a woman in the force, you had two choices against the constant barrage of sexual innuendos and sexist remarks. Take them, or get ostracised.’ Parm Sandhu had to put up with frequent jokes about her ethnicity. ‘Our little black or brown faces were OK if we kept quiet and stayed in the crowd,’ she writes, ‘but as soon as any of us became “uppity”, we had to be reminded of where we stood.’ Both Sandhu and Logan say this attitude persisted higher up the ranks. When Carol Howard, a Black firearms officer, joined the Met’s Diplomatic Protection Group, she was bullied by her line manager (Couzens and Carrick both worked for the group). She won a discrimination case in 2014; a remedy hearing found that the Met had responded to the ruling by trying to smear her as a ‘child predator’.
Some officers have recently started posting images of the ‘thin blue line’ symbol – a blue line running horizontally across the Union Jack – on social media or wearing it on badges to commemorate colleagues killed in the line of duty. Police officers are generally banned from displaying political symbols, but a report by the Institute of Race Relations last year characterised use of the symbol as an effort to recast the police as a ‘besieged and misunderstood minority group’. It pointed out that the equivalent symbol in the US is associated with white nationalism and the far-right backlash to Black Lives Matter.
AYouGov poll this month found that only 47 per cent of people think the police are doing a good job, down from 77 per cent in 2019. Successive governments have tried to balance rebuilding trust in the police with winning back officers’ goodwill. May’s administration announced an extra £100 million to tackle knife crime and cancelled the second part of the Leveson inquiry. Boris Johnson promised to recruit an extra twenty thousand police officers in England and Wales alongside an extra £1.1 billion in funding.
Police officers might feel weaker, but every government since Thatcher’s has given them more powers. Now, their use of force has become blunter, and oversight has diminished. Austerity and a hurried recruitment drive have undermined the vetting of new officers. ‘When you have massive cuts, you have even less time for checks and balances,’ Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, told Harper. The decline of neighbourhood teams and detective work has made the Met more reliant on what’s known as ‘fire brigade policing’ – hurried emergency responses. Consider the use of Section 60. It was introduced in the 1990s to target football hooligans and raves, and in the 2000s the Met began deploying it routinely to deal with knife crime and other violent incidents. The tactic is used to suppress disorder temporarily, without tackling its underlying causes. It rarely leads to weapons being uncovered, and can make members of the communities where it’s deployed feel as if they’re being collectively blamed for crime. May’s restrictions on Section 60 were relaxed in 2019, following a rise in stabbings, with unsurprising effects. There were 622 Section 60 searches in 2016-17; by 2019-20 the number had risen to more than 18,000. But ‘intelligence-led’ operations can be problematic too. The Met admitted in court last year that its ‘gangs matrix’ – a database that collects data on people the police suspect of being involved in drugs or violence – was racially biased and breached privacy laws.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 provides yet more powers, with even less accountability. It introduced the Serious Violence Reduction Order, a court-ordered measure that allows officers to stop and search a named individual without reasonable grounds for suspicion. New powers criminalising trespass are likely to affect the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in particular. The Institute of Race Relations says that the ‘police covenant’ part of the act, a pledge to offer extra support to officers, is a threat to the principle of policing by consent, however imperfect that may be. The covenant ‘privileges the police’s wellbeing and health, their physical protection and support for their families above those of other emergency workers’. The government wants something in return. The 2022 Act and the Public Order Bill introduce new restrictions on protest. In November, Braverman told police chiefs to be tougher on disruptive protest groups like Just Stop Oil. ‘We have seen an erosion of confidence in the police to take action against the radicals, the road blockers, the vandals, the militants and the extremists,’ she said. ‘Such disruption is a threat to our way of life.’
But the Tories have struggled to put the genie back in the bottle. Each new initiative since 2018 has been overshadowed by the re-emergence of a previous scandal, or by a new one coming to light. The government must be hoping that the new leadership at the Met will help restore public confidence: Rowley has promised a ‘ruthless’ anti-corruption drive over the next two years. What remains to be seen is how much this will be about restoring the Met’s image, rather than genuine change. The Met recently released a series of recruitment ads featuring testimonies by people whose relatives are police officers. ‘Now I see a confident, strong, independent woman, a police sergeant,’ one interviewee says. ‘My little sister is amazing.’ No doubt the Met would be happy if more people from under-represented groups joined up. But the main audience for these ads isn’t potential recruits – it’s the rest of us.
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