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The Tyranny of Low Expectations

October 13th, 2019

It is generally a good idea, when facing severe criticism from an inquiry, to concede with as much good grace as possible, to keep your immediate thoughts about the idiocy of the judge to yourself and not to try and justify the behaviour which has been criticised. No good will come of it: you will look like someone paying lip service to the findings who really thinks you’ve done nothing wrong.

It is advice which the Metropolitan Police singularly failed to follow in their response to the report by Sir Richard Henriques on Operation Midland, the now notorious investigation into alleged child abuse. The day of its publication the Met’s response focused on why no senior officer had done anything wrong despite the long list of failings catalogued: 43 in total, including that, in obtaining search warrants without being fully transparent about the evidence they had, the police had broken the law. This is about as serious a failure as it is possible to have by public servants whose primary and most important duty is to uphold it. Not break it. The Met’s apology for the upset caused by the searches seemed to be quite unequal to the failure – the sort of apology you might make if you’d inadvertently interrupted someone having a bath – rather than a realisation of the very great damage done to policing and the administration of justice if those tasked with it cannot be bothered to behave lawfully.

The report by the IOPC the following day adopted the same self-justifying tone to explain why there was no basis for disciplining any of the officers involved despite its comprehensive investigation, one so comprehensive that none of the officers involved had been interviewed. What would the IOPC consider an inadequate investigation to be?

One of the critical failings was the police deciding – and publicly announcing – that allegations were true and believable before they had been investigated, as a result of an obligation to believe a victim and, indeed, to call them a victim rather than a complainant. Paragraphs 1.11-1.35 of the report on why these two practices are so seriously prejudicial to proper investigation, the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof (the foundations of our entire criminal justice system) are very well worth reading. In consequence, one of the judge’s most important recommendations was for the police not automatically to believe complainants: “If one policy decision results from this review I trust that the instruction to ‘believe’ a victim’s account will cease.”  The police seem disinclined to follow this advice. Even Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, despite being a QC, seems not to understand that belief in an allegation is not necessary to investigate it properly.

The belief that victims must be believed without question did not come from nowhere. It arose in part in response to previous police failings. In 1982 Roger Graef’s documentary series about Thames Valley Police caused a stir when the episode entitled “A Complaint of Rape” showed male policemen treating a female rape victim with harsh dismissiveness. This led to important and valuable changes in how the police investigated this most serious and sensitive of crimes. Similar changes have been made with regard to how child victims of sexual abuse are treated, both by the police and by the courts when they give evidence. All of this is welcome: old-fashioned assumptions (that women are asking for it, that children are liars) are no basis on which to investigate crimes.

Some old-fashioned attitudes still persist though: young troubled girls in care are seen as not “nice” and in effect asking to be abused by their attackers, the assumption this time being wrapped up in the mistaken and nonsensical notion that an underage child has given “consent”. At the other end, the police have veered from ignoring crimes alleged against the famous (Savile) to pursuing them with unseemly malice and a misguided focus on making media headlines (Cliff Richard).  (If there is one thing to be regretted from the decision to abandon the second half of the Leveson Inquiry is that there was no examination of the police’s relationship with the press and whether this is compatible with their policing role. It is something which needs much more scrutiny than it is, for obvious reasons, ever likely now to get.) It as if the police veer from one position to another in response to the scandal du jour without any understanding of – or firm attachment to – the long-standing principles underlying the criminal justice system

Now the police have adopted the spuriously sentimental assumption that a victim should be believed without question. To do so is fatally to confuse therapy and care with investigation. The former is laudable but not the role of the police. The latter is.

For investigators to do their job properly they need two skills above all: emotional intelligence – empathy, an ability to understand human behaviour and motivation and build a relationship with both (alleged) criminal and victim. The second is to have what Graham Greene described as the “splinter of ice in the heart”, the judgment and analysis that makes them look coolly and dispassionately at the facts, to base their opinions on what they have found and not what they would like to believe to be true, that makes them remember that they need to find and test the evidence and ensure that it is good enough to convict someone to the standard required.

As the report put it:

“Any process that imposes an artificial state of mind upon an investigator is, necessarily, a flawed process. An investigator, in any reputable system of justice, must be impartial. The imposed ‘obligation to believe’ removes that impartiality.”

If the police allow sentimental beliefs, preconceived opinions and assumptions, pressure from the media or politicians to override the judgments they need to make, they are doing a profound disservice – to the victims (who need their complaints taken seriously and investigated properly, a crucially important difference to simply being believed), to the defendants (who are entitled not to be accused publicly – or at all – on the basis of opinion unsupported by any evidence), to the public’s faith in policing, to the administration of justice itself.

What was so dismaying about the police’s response to the Henriques report was not just the rush to protect their own, the desire to explain why disciplinary action was unjustified, the belief that incompetence and negligence were not sufficient to merit any kind of action.  The approach was that the police had broken no disciplinary rules; they did not intend to cause harm and there was no evidence of criminal behaviour so that was that.  The level of incompetence and negligence on display, the failures in basic investigative tradecraft were simply to be ignored. No: what’s worse is the assumption that nothing more than this can or should be expected.

The police had passed the low bar expected of them.  43 failings in one inquiry can happen but no-one need take any responsibility.

It is a stunning failure to understand what leadership means.  Leadership means, in essence, taking responsibility for what happens in your watch – even if you are not personally to blame.  Those senior officers who were in position when this lamentable series of failures occurred were the leaders in charge.  If leadership is to mean anything, if setting an example to all those in the police service matters, if an apology is to be meaningful, if learning lessons is to be something other than a cliché to be trotted out, if integrity at the top of policing is to have substance, then those in charge of this inquiry should, in all honour, take responsibility and resign.  Not seek to evade it with self-serving justifications and remorseful cries of “Oh, if only I’d done something different.

The Home Secretary (not noted for either her empathy or integrity or, indeed, her understanding of the criminal justice system – as her latest spat with the Attorney-General suggests) has apparently asked for a further inquiry to be carried out – though since it is to be carried out by the very body which has come up with the practices roundly criticised by the Henriques report, don’t build your hopes too high. In the meanwhile, the Prime Minister has made great play of his intention to fund 20,000 more police for our streets.  Without wishing to downplay the work of ordinary policemen or, indeed the need for effective policing, with this sort of inadequate leadership and incompetence on show, it is worth asking whether this really is the best use of public money?  Maybe fixing the problems identified by Sir Richard Henriques and implementing his recommendations might come before spaffing money on more police. It can’t, after all, cost that much to remind police leaders of that well-known saying: “The buck stops here.

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