Happy Valley, Line of Duty, The Bay, The Gold, Broadchurch, Inspector Morse, Endeavour, Unforgotten, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Cracker, Vera, Prime Suspect, Bodyguard, Luther, Criminal, Heartbeat, Inspector George Gently, Between the Lines, Foyle’s War. The view we lap up, given the preponderance of TV police dramas, is of basically good hearted, if understandably grumpy, policemen (and the occasional ballsy policewoman) doing their best for us. If they occasionally stretch or break a rule or two, well it’s all in a good cause. They are the good guys.
Meanwhile back on Planet Earth, on 17 March a former Met police officer was jailed for sharing with colleagues as “banter” a photo of two men having sex with a decapitated woman’s body. Is it any surprise to read in the Casey report that, while the Met was trying to encourage whistleblowing, others were telling colleagues to delete their WhatsApp messages.
The report is long and detailed; its contents appalling. They are – if anyone had paid attention to all the previous reports on the Met in the last few years – entirely unsurprising. The only surprise is that it needs to be said, again and again and again, at ever shorter intervals. We are not talking about 1 or 2 rotten apples, not barrels of rotten apples, not even rotten orchards. We are well into salted earth territory.
It is best summed up by what Louise Casey herself said this morning: “It’s an organisation that is long on hubris and quite short on humility.” It is “completely in denial“. She politely said that the current Met Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, gets it. But does he? His reaction was to get himself into an argument about whether he accepted the full findings, about whether the force’s failings were “institutional” or not. For God’s sake Mark! Today is not the day to be making such arguments, even if they were worthwhile (they’re not). How the hell do you think you come across? His tin ear was as nothing compared to the wholly inadequate, tone deaf and empathy-free response from the Home Secretary with a statement that should have been torn up as the useless first draft it was. Cameron is at a bit of a loose end at the moment. Couldn’t they have drafted him to write it? One thing he was good at was doing proper apologies for dreadful behaviour – including that of the police (at Hillsborough, in case anyone thinks bad police behaviour is confined to the Met).
Perhaps the most shocking aspects of the report are the examples: one of the worst is the revelation that evidence from rape cases was put in broken fridges, so full and so badly maintained that the door couldn’t be shut, the evidence was contaminated and had to be thrown away. No wonder one police officer is reported to have said that rape is now effectively decriminalised. The other is the report of a policeman masturbating in a shared changing room in front of colleagues. No wonder no-one was bothered at the reports of David Carrick’s or Wayne Couzen’s behaviour. We have an organisation mired in ethical blindness. Even poor Sir Mark admitted as much when he said that he was so busy with his job as Assistant Met Commissioner a few years back that he did not speak up about bad behaviour he saw. There you have it. The Burke quote about why evil triumphs personified.
Broken fridges and evidence thrown away. The police sending out questionnaires in high profile investigations (Partygate). The police breaking the law when getting search warrants (Operation Midland). This is a force which has lost a sense of professionalism, which no longer knows how – or cares – to do its job properly. A police force which cannot be bothered to keep evidence properly is not fit for purpose. Yes – it shows a contempt for women. But if they weren’t doing it in these sorts of cases, why would anyone think they are doing good investigations in other sorts of crimes? It is the lack of professionalism from which all the other problems stem: the sexism, the racism, the homophobia, the corruption, the obstruction (the Morgan report), the law-breaking and other multiple failures (Operation Midland & the Henriques report). No professional police force should tolerate the sort of behaviour described because people who behave like that are not going to do a good job even if faced with someone they can’t taunt, insult or disregard. The prejudice is both a consequence of – and leads to – incompetence. Both are both fatal to good policing. The danger of the responses to this report is that they will focus on the prejudice and not on the incompetence. No amount of EDI training or flag-waving is going to change that (see the Stephen Port murders) if you have officers who should never have been employed or are useless at what they do. All it does is give a comforting but superficial ethical veneer and change nothing substantive.
So if we don’t want superficial veneers, what next? We have one example of a police force which has had to change utterly: the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Use that as an example. Starmer was a lawyer heavily involved in those changes. This is one area where his experience if wisely used could really make a difference.
- Appoint a tough no-nonsense Roy Mason-type Policing Minister whose sole job is this.
- Have a task force of people from NI who know how this needs to be done and some outsiders from other sectors where culture change has been effected. (The Mayor can be represented but must not be in charge. He did nothing for 7 years waiting for others to do the work before jumping on the bandwagon.) No retired time-servers or other police incompetents.
- A tight timetable for action.
- Regular reports to the PM on progress: monthly – for as long as it takes.
- Put the Police Federation & College of Policing firmly in their box. If they seek to delay or obstruct point them to the door marked “Exit” or even “Abolition”. Sack all officers who don’t want to get with the programme.
- Any legal changes necessary to be given priority. Get competent lawyers to advise on the law not lobby groups. (Stop all associations with lobby groups; they create conflicts of interest incompatible with policing “without fear of favour“.)
- Break down the tasks into little ones with mini-task forces for each and methodically work your way through: recruitment, due diligence, training, promotion, disciplinary process (no resigning while under investigation, for instance), appeals process, complaints and investigations etc.
- Ensure that all the changes cohere and don’t work against each other.
Coming up with best practice is not hard. Rolling it out and embedding it is. So the Met will need relentless outside pressure and persistent hard work, tough leadership and good communication internally. Do they have the people who want to make it better and are willing to do the necessary? That’s the cadre Rowley needs to find. And fast.
This report ought to be a near-death experience for the Met. And other police forces. It is a chance for it to change for the better. If not now, when?