They didn’t even know it was a mosque

Paul Foot

  • Talking Blues: The Police in their Own Words by Roger Graef
    Collins Harvill, 512 pp, £15.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 00 272436 7

At the end of this book there is a story about apples (which I repeat as inconclusive proof that I have fought my way through its five hundred pages). An Inspector from a Northern Police Force is musing on the number of people who long for the ‘good old days’ of the local Bobby. ‘Everyone always tells me how they remember being cuffed around the ear by their local Bobby for stealing an apple.’ The Inspector reflects that ‘the streets of this city would be littered with apples, it would be a forest of trees, not just an orchard, for all the people that have said that to me.’ Yet he has never met a single policeman who remembers stopping anyone for stealing an apple. Like Dixon of Dock Green, the cheerful Bobby who was always around the place when any trouble broke out, and whatever the temptation was fair, even-handed and cheerful, it is part all a mirage of the good old days – which were, in fact, bad.

There has nonetheless been a decisive shift in the attitudes of the British Police in recent years – almost all of it for the worse. I recall as a young reporter in Scotland covering the case of a teenage boy who had been beaten up by a policeman in Thurso, which is near John o’Groats. There was the most fearful hullabaloo based on the belief that this sort of thing could only happen in the wilderness of the Far North. The press demanded that this errant policeman be brought to justice. There was a similar furore a year or two later when there was some evidence (though not much) that a senior policeman in Sheffield had threatened to beat a suspect with a rhino whip.

Allegations which then shocked the nation would now be dismissed as trivial. Unprovoked violence by the Police, often against people who are utterly helpless, has grown to quite intolerable proportions. In 1988, the Metropolitan Police paid out £333,000 in damages to people who had sued them for assault, battery, grievous bodily harm and other attacks. They paid £75,000 to the family of Blair Peach, who alleged that the young man had been murdered by police on a demonstration; £20,000 to Mr Carl Kelly who was arrested and, he alleged, beaten up while protesting about the death of another man, Colin Roach, in a police station; £48,699 to Stephen Dowsett and Philip Tape who were walking home from a dance a little drunk when they were bundled into a police van, taken to a police station and so terribly beaten that Dowsett’s jaw had to be re-set in two places; £17,500 to Manit Schemir, a mechanical engineer who was walking to a restaurant when some policemen mistook him for a rioter, hauled him into an alley and beat his head in. There were many, many other such payments, but none of them carried with them an admission that the alleged assaults had taken place, police lawyers having advised their clients that they would not be able to persuade a jury that the Police had behaved lawfully.

This violence by the Police is seldom punished. It encourages the notion among policemen that they are somehow above the law, a sheltered species which weaves around itself a cocoon of indifference to the checks and balances of what is left of democratic society. Inside the cocoon all sorts of preposterous prejudices fester and multiply. Some of the prejudices retailed in this book in the words of serving policemen are quite shocking. A Superintendent (no less) in a Midlands Force is quoted on the subject of two pigs’ heads which were thrown into a mosque. Turned out to be a couple of drunken yobs who didn’t even know it was a mosque,’ sneers the Superintendent, who wants us to believe that the ‘yobs’ quite by accident chose a mosque for their sport. The Asians in his area, he continues, were so gullible that they leapt to the fantastic conclusion that the attack on the mosque was racialist. ‘That’s the trouble’, concludes the Superintendent. ‘They make so many allegations that are totally a pack of lies’. With men like that in charge of law and order, it is hardly surprising that a black doctor and three friends driving from North London to Trafalgar Square were stopped four times, searched for drugs and racially abused.

A woman police sergeant reports here: ‘I’ve experienced severe problems because, on more than a couple of occasions, I wouldn’t sleep with the senior officers. If you say no, they take it as a personal insult; and no matter what they say, they really do take it out on you.’ These senior officers, no doubt, are the people who make decisions about rapes, and who clude that rape victims, more often than not, ‘ask for it’.

It is 12 years since Martin Short and two co-authors wrote the Penguin Special The Fall of Scotland Yard, a devastating indictment of corruption in the higher echelons of the biggest Police Force in the country. There is little in this book to suggest that there has been any improvement since then. Operation Countryman, like the other attempts to root out corruption in the Metropolitan Police, was a pathetic failure. The perks and privileges go on. ‘Christmas is a big event in the Police Force,’ one young constable told Roger Graef. ‘It’s not so much Christmas as all December. You just have a bloody good time. The fact is, you don’t have to pay for it.’ While other sections of society, especially if they work (as the Police theoretically do) under the aegis of local authorities, have had to put up with redundancies and abuse, the Police have had pay awards and perks showered on them. Along with pensioners and pregnant women, for instance, they have a right to free health prescriptions for themselves and their families.

In their cocoon, the Police take easily to the world of secret ritual and sinister oaths. Despite discouragement from on high, more and more of them are joining Masonic lodges. They meet some strange types there. Roger Graef reminds us that Lennie Gibson, ‘a top London armed robber’, was Master of the Waterways Lodge in Southgate, London, when eight officers from the Metropolitan Police were members there.

Twenty years ago, some semblance of political neutrality was preserved in the Police Force. That has all vanished today. Though there are, apparently, some ‘closet’ Labour Party supporters, the dominant politics in the Force, on evidence of these conversations, is very right-wing indeed. No doubt the great industrial confrontations of the Eighties have played their part in that. While everyone agrees that the Police Force, both in manpower and in technology, is hopelessly inadequate to deal with what one policeman describes in this book as ‘the poor robbing the poor’, there were unlimited resources to help put down the miners’ strike or to rush to the aid of Eddy Shah at Warrington or Rupert Murdoch at Wapping when they sought to smash the trade unions. In the summer of 1984, I had a phone call from a lonely copper in Midsomer Norton. He told me he was the only policeman on duty in an area populated by 70,000 people. All his mates had rushed off to the ‘challenge’ (and the overtime) on the miners’ picket lines.

Part of the reason for the new-found stridency and confidence of the ‘canteen cowboys’ in the Police Force is their increasing inviolability. Again and again, Roger Graef quotes worried policemen and policewomen who allowed terrible things to go on, often on patrols and in vans of which they were in charge, because they did not want to rock the boat. If they did break rank to expose assaults and lies, they were instantly ostracised even by those of their colleagues who disapproved of the original offence.

This inviolability is safeguarded by the judiciary. Judges go to the most extravagant lengths to defend a policeman’s version of events against any other explanation. One result of that is the effectiveness of confessions made to the Police. In the past, it was assumed that strong corroborative evidence was necessary before a conviction could stand on a confession made by a prisoner, alone in a cell. Yet almost all the controversial cases of recent years have depended on confessions. The six men convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings, the four convicted of the pub bombings at Guildford, the three men inside for the murder of the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater, and, most recently and most scandalously, the case of the three men convicted of the murder of PC Blakelock during the Broadwater farm riots – all these vital cases have depended heavily (in the Guildford and Broadwater cases exclusively) on dubious confessions made without tape-recorders. In the Birmingham, Guildford and Bridgewater cases the people who confessed alleged that they were beaten, abused and left unrepresented during interviews which took away their freedom for at least a third of their lives.

Is it possible that the Police encourage confessions which are not true? The best answer to that is in two words: Howard Kerr. Howard was 17 when he was arrested on the suspicion that he had been rioting at Broadwater Farm. He was hauled half-naked from his bed very early one morning, and spent three days at a police station before anyone knew where he was. He was ‘interviewed’ by police officers, who took a statement from him fifty pages long. The confession delved at great length into Howard’s part in the riots, and described, often in minute detail, the other rioters, what they said, and what they were wearing.

Howard’s resourceful solicitor followed up the story his client told him as soon as he was allowed an interview. Howard Kerr said he was in Windsor that night, and caught the last bus home. If the Windsor/late bus story was true, he could not have been anywhere near the riots. Witnesses, including a bus conductress, were found to prove that Howard’s alibi was watertight and that the whole of his 50-page confession was invented. ‘I was frightened, so I told them what I thought they wanted to hear,’ said Howard later. If the witnesses had not been found, the courts would have believed the confession, and Howard Kerr, along with all the accomplices he named, would be serving long terms in prison.

There is overwhelming evidence of persistent abuse of police powers which are already vast. None of the efforts to curb these powers in recent years has had the slightest effect. The attempt to introduce some element of independence into the police complaints procedure through the Police Complaints Authority has been a dismal failure. The Authority is despised by the Police, as several testimonies in this book make clear. It is also, increasingly, ignored by the public. More and more complainants bypass the official machinery altogether and immediately take out writs against the Police. At the same time the judiciary and the magistracy encourage the abuse of police powers. As I write this, a London magistrate summarily dismisses a careful case prepared by the Crown Prosecution Service against three policemen who were charged with various hideous crimes of violence against demonstrators at Wapping. The Crown Prosecution Service has completely failed to establish itself as an independent prosecuting force, and the Director of Public Prosecutions is notorious for his decisions not to prosecute policemen.

No one is better qualified to tackle this subject than Roger Graef. His famous television programme on the brutal interrogation undergone by a rape victim led to an outcry, and at least to some gesture of reform. He is a patient, thorough journalist who is plainly distressed by the abuse of power which his prodigious inquiries have exposed. The format he has chosen for his huge book, however, does a grave disservice to his research. It is a collation of anonymous quotations from serving police all over the country on every conceivable subject from their attitudes to black people to how they fare in bed. Certain themes emerge almost in spite of the book. Chief among these appears to be that many of the older, more ‘decent’ policemen are clearing off to other jobs. In general, though, the book is all the wrong way round. Graef should have used his interviews to write a book about the Police, in his own voice, expressing his own views and reaching his own conclusions. His interminable interviews are all in a jumble. The jumble is described in the blurb as an ‘emotional mosaic’. But most mosaics have a recognisable pattern. This one does not. There seems no rhyme or reason to the structure. The most ridiculous example is the inclusion of the Royal Ulster Constabulary as just another British Police Force, and not a separate phenomenon, a sectarian Police Force doling out Protestant law and Protestant order in a sectarian state. There is no thread, no theme, no poll to give weight to one anonymous quotation as against another. Here is a vile racist, saying all black people are slags. Here is another policeman saying he does not discriminate. Whose views prevail in practice?

Because he does not even try to answer these questions, Roger Graef’s sparse commentary is infuriatingly inconclusive. He hops from a gesture of outrage here to a word of understanding and sympathy there. The effect is bland to the point of boredom. For all his obvious uneasiness about what is going on in the Police Force, Graef never seems to recover from his introduction with its ominous reference to ‘my friend Sir Peter Imbert’ (the Metropolitan Police Commissioner). He started out, I suspect, to write a critique, but the result is little more than sophisticated public relations for the boys in blue.

There is a John Ford film about a corrupt policeman which ends with a lecture from the chief of police. He shows his audience of journalists the lights which come on in the police station whenever policemen answer an emergency. If the Police Force didn’t exist, he says, all the lights would go out. Society would be overrun by terror and crime. So if one corrupt policeman is caught, no one should conclude that the whole force is rotten, or should be reformed from top to bottom. The speech spoiled the film. It detracted from the power of the exposé. Any society will have a system of law enforcement. That system stands or falls according to how freely the society consents to it. If a powerful and pampered police force behaves in a way which encourages violence and injustice, then those things must be exposed and changed. No amount of sentimental exaggeration about thin blue lines and lights going out – and no amount of talk about friends in high places – should divert those of us who write about these matters from that aim.