Corruption inside law enforcement agencies is impossible to eliminate, according to the man charged with tackling malpractice inside Scotland Yard.
Detective Chief Superintendent Alaric Bonthron, head of the Metropolitan Police’s Professional Standards Unit, told The Independent the threat from organised crime groups infiltrating the force is “very challenging”. However, he denied the Yard still suffered from the “endemic police corruption” outlined in the leaked report from Operation Tiberius in 2002, extracts of which have been revealed by this newspaper.
The document disclosed that some of Britain’s most notorious crime syndicates were able to infiltrate the Met “at will”, leading to compromised murder investigations, leaks of intelligence and covert informants being identified.
In an interview to address the concerns raised by Operation Tiberius, Det Ch Supt Bonthron admitted there will “always be vulnerabilities when you have people in systems”, but claimed that Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met Commissioner, took corruption “very seriously”.
He said: “We work very closely with other agencies to help their operations, whether it’s a big HMRC job or whether it’s the CPS feeling they are vulnerable.”
Asked if there were a threat to those agencies, Mr Bonthron replied: “There is a threat to any law enforcement agency. You will never eliminate corruption. You can make it very difficult and put systems in place.
“I think the organisation has taken corruption seriously. Organised crime by its very nature is very challenging. Has corruption gone away entirely? I don’t think it has; you have always got vulnerabilities. Part of our role is to make sure the organisation is absolutely doing the best it can to be corruption-proof.”
Mr Bonthron has spent his entire 29-year police career on the streets of London, eventually rising up the ladder to take charge of the Met’s secretive anti-corruption command nine months ago.
One of the major criticisms levelled at the police is that they appear to turn a blind eye to corruption as the details of it are too embarrassing to be aired in open court. Mr Bonthron is quick to reject that assertion, pointing to the recent conviction of a detective chief inspector, who was jailed last year for offering to sell information to the News of the World. “We have had April Casburn and we’ve got other cases coming through on that, and I publish the outcome of our disciplinary findings on the internet for the public to read,” he said.
But those are completed prosecutions. The allegation is that many cases never even get that far. He replies: “If we have got something to go after criminally, we will go after it. It’s not about being embarrassed. Look at Operation Alice about Plebgate – that was a full-scale operation that involved taking thousands of statements and working it through.”
Earlier this month PC Keith Wallis pleaded guilty to misconduct in a public office after he fabricated an email, claiming to be from a member of the public who witnessed the then-Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell insulting police officers during a row at the gates of Downing Street.
When The Independent points out that this inquiry was only launched after a Channel 4 investigation, Mr Bonthron shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “It was, but the initial incident was dealt with, and then it spiralled away from that,” he says. “We have had an individual who has pleaded guilty in court. That was one individual.”
He reveals the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards has 385 staff and spends £24m annually – around 0.7 per cent of the Met’s total £3.3bn budget. But what of Operation Tiberius’ findings that the Met suffered “endemic corruption” in 2002, and was wide open to organised crime syndicates? Is that still the case?
“Personally, from what I have seen, no,” he says. “I am not saying we are completely free but I think that, in terms of the way Met operates, there are lots of checks and balances in place… The organisation is more robust.”
Asked about suspected corrupt individuals named in the report, very few of whom have ever been prosecuted, Mr Bonthron replies: “Whatever action was taken back then was taken back then. A number of people went to court and were acquitted. But if you are going after them and you are not getting the evidence, the intelligence you want, then you can’t put them before a court.
“Historically, if you look globally at organised crime networks, they are a professional group. It’s their job… It’s about us getting into them and taking them apart.”
Tiberius also outlines in detail how corrupt former officers who understand the criminal justice system often leave the force for paid employment with organised crime syndicates, helping them avoid prosecution.
But Mr Bonthron says: “In the modern day and age you can research anything on the internet, watch TV shows. Some of these shows are very accurate and people will think, ‘I won’t do this and I won’t do that.’ The criminal justice system is much more open than it was, but there will always be vulnerabilities when you have people in systems.”
He adds that Sir Bernard has made corruption one of his key priorities at the Met and times have changed dramatically since the 1980s when police officers were allowed to retire on ill-health grounds rather than “face the music”. “There are regulations that we are bound by… It really depends on the circumstances. You can’t resign if you are suspended. If you get served a notice that you are under investigation, you can resign before you are suspended.”
When asked about some of the inexplicable features of the Met’s repeated investigations into the murder of Daniel Morgan, a private detective found in a south London car park with an axe embedded in his skull in 1987 amid claims he was about to blow the whistle on links between the Met and organised crime, Mr Bonthron is sensitive.
“We are not going to discuss Morgan, only because there is a Home Office, judge-led inquiry that is going to take place,” he says. “It is a significant case for the Met and due process is going to take place, and that is the most appropriate place for that evidence to be called and held to account… I do sympathise with the family and I understand their desire to find the truth, because they have lost a loved one… Everyone wants to know what happened.”
He is also keen to stress that the vast majority of Metropolitan Police staff find it deeply depressing when allegations of corruption emerge. He says that 99.9 per cent of this organisation “are honest, law-abiding individuals and find it abhorrent and are absolutely appalled … One officer, one member of staff, headline news … and it discredits the organisation,” he says.