Why 2013 was an annus horribilis for the police

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But can they move on and re-establish their probity?

There were more significant exchanges in  Parliament this year than that between Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and Sergeant Chris Jones – but there can’t have been many as awkward.

Sgt Jones, alongside his Police Federation colleague Detective Sergeant Stuart Hinton, was being invited to apologise for the treatment doled out to Andrew Mitchell, the cabinet minister who had been accused of dismissing officers on duty at Downing Street as “plebs”. More precisely, he was invited to do so six times. Each time, he batted the offer away with the dogged desperation of a seasoned politician. At the fifth time of asking, he paused for fully seven seconds. (Try pausing for seven seconds in your next argument and see just how frosty the atmosphere gets.) He cocked his head. “Yeah, look,” he said. “I’ll come back to the point that I can’t apologise for something that I haven’t done.”

Sgt Jones did not win many friends that day. And, all in all, the police did not win many friends in 2013, a true annus horribilis. We learnt that they had missed the chance to catch Jimmy Savile. We learnt that they missed chances to break up the sex gangs that groomed girls in Bradford and Oxford. We learnt that they had stolen the identities of dead children. We learnt that they had used those identities to have sex with undercover targets. We learnt that they had bugged Stephen Lawrence’s best friend.

We learnt that the hacking scandal was still not going away, with one officer jailed for taking illegal payments and others arrested. We learnt that they had tried to spy on students. We learnt that they might have doctored witness statements after the Hillsborough disaster. We learnt that they were accused of fixing crime statistics. We learnt that they couldn’t recognise Prince Andrew, even in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. And we learnt that they wouldn’t apologise to Andrew Mitchell – except in the most begrudging terms imaginable.

Andrew Mitchell eventually received a begrudging apology following the 'Plebgate' affair (Getty) Andrew Mitchell eventually received a begrudging apology following the 'Plebgate' affair (Getty)
To list the full range of the police’s problems in 2013 would take almost all the space we have. But even from the sampling above, the conclusion seems obvious: it has not been a great year. And to those who follow the police closely, none of it was terribly surprising. “I’ve totally lost my ability to be shocked,” says Keith Vaz. “But I think there have been times when fact has been stranger than fiction.” Another politician who has had close dealings with the police said: “I’m afraid it did not shock me. I’m afraid I saw it as being all of a piece.” Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, borrowed an Aaron Sorkin line. “I’m shocked,” she said, “but I’m not surprised.”

All of this arguably goes to show why David Cameron called the police “the last unreformed public service”. But that was eight years ago; many of the reforms that his Government has proposed are already in place. So what do these crises tell us about the institution and people charged with our protection? And is something new going wrong, or are we experiencing the last symptoms of a fading disease?

At the end of a busy year for his committee, Vaz, for his part, sees reason for guarded optimism. “This is a period of, to borrow from Mandela, truth and reconciliation,” he said. “We’ve had the truth bit, with these scandals coming to light. What we haven’t yet had is the reconciliation.”

When considering the gravity of the charge sheet against the police, it is worth asking a question about the statute of limitations. “When I was a local chief in Hampshire, many of my front-line staff would point out that the Hillsborough stuff happened before they were born,” says Alex Marshall, recently installed as the first chief executive of the College of Policing. It is similarly hard to imagine that Jimmy Savile would be left so unencumbered by the law today. “The culture has changed enormously in the 26 years I’ve been in Parliament,” says Vaz. “The black arts might have been practised more than a decade ago, but you simply cannot get away with that now.”

Accordingly, the conflation of past and present leads some to question the motives of the police’s critics. “There seems to be an underlying agenda, that the word ‘integrity’ is raised whenever policing is discussed,” says Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. “There are a group of events which have rightly caused public concern. But I don’t think that’s prima facie evidence of a problem with integrity.”

Talking to police officers from all parts of the service, it is hard to escape the sense that they see the Government’s programme of cuts as inextricable from the criticism they have faced. “A lot of police officers feel they’re under attack,” says Alex Marshall. The Police Federation doesn’t quite draw a causal link. But it said in a statement that “unparalleled levels of reform in a very short space of time” have come “amid a series of incidents of negative publicity which, in turn, has led to concern over the integrity of officers”.

Liverpool supporters are still campaigning against alleged police wrongdoings surrounding the Hillsborough disaster (Getty) Liverpool supporters are still campaigning against alleged police wrongdoings surrounding the Hillsborough disaster (Getty)
Among those on patrol, whose days get longer as the thin blue line gets thinner, that view is understandably strong. According to Lord Stevens’ recent review of policing, disillusionment with the Government’s reforms has led to a “damaging stand-off” and “plummeting morale”. “The cuts have kicked in, and there are just fewer people,” says one officer in the Met – since 2010 a 7 per cent cut to officer numbers and 16 per cent to support staff. “Reform is probably needed, but when you  combine it with so many kicks in the teeth, morale is low and and that’s what builds a situation where things like this could happen.”

She expresses her own frustration that the rules that are supposed to ensure high standards can instead get in the way of helping people. “There are so many rules and regulations,” she says, sighing. “So much of the time, police officers are bending them to get things done so that you can provide a better service. Like, rather than keep a sick person waiting in the street for an ambulance for an hour, you take them to hospital in your car.”

Those kinds of experiences may be the reason that such a litany of scandals has done little to dent public confidence. In the aftermath of the Andrew Mitchell affair, two-thirds of people told ComRes that they were no less likely to trust the police. As Simon Holdaway, a professor of criminology at Nottingham Trent University, puts it: “They might not trust them over Plebgate, but they trust their local bobby.”

But unthinking support is probably not good news. “A lot of the public tend to think that if they’re bending the rules, so long as they’re catching the bad guys, that’s a good thing,” says Dr Louise Westmarland, senior lecturer in criminology at the Open University, and author of a major recent study into police ethics. “They may think, who cares – they’re probably guilty anyway.” Dr Westmarland’s study, published a year ago, made for sobering reading for those concerned about the behaviour of police. She found a “blue wall of silence” and a set of moral priorities that might seem skewed to those outside the profession. Barely half of officers said that they would “definitely” report a colleague who administered a punishment beating to a suspect who tried to escape. They tended to think that such an act would be less serious than, for example, taking cash from a lost wallet.

“When we asked why they saw it that way, they said, well, that’s a crime, the other thing’s against the rules,” she explains. “Police culture is all about catching the bad guys, making a difference, and they feel they know who the bad guys are, and they see what happens to victims. So they walk into a house and they have a hell of a feeling of authority and power. It’s only a short step from that to believing you can do all sorts of things. You might get a bit carried away.”

Another current front-line Met officer sees that culture as something inherited from the 1980s – and the past not as severed from the present, but as inescapably leading to it. “The common theme, spanning back to Hillsborough, is the defensive nature of policing, the sacrifice of the truth for preservation of reputations,” he said in an email. “Those days are not yet done and the reality is that very little has changed. It’s going to be hard to convince a service that believes it knows best that it doesn’t.”

Rolf Harris was among the high-profile individuals arrested on historic sex charges (Getty) Rolf Harris was among the high-profile individuals arrested on historic sex charges (Getty)
Some of the Government’s attempts at reform are efforts to grapple with exactly this kind of issue. Police and Crime Commissioners are meant to encourage local accountability; “Direct Entry” will allow outsiders to be parachuted into senior jobs; the College of Policing is focused on professionalism, with a draft of a new code of ethics currently in circulation. “A bad year is a good moment to launch a professional body,” Alex Marshall notes wryly.

So far, at least, the results are mixed. In particular, the Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) have come in for heavy criticism. Lord Stevens’ report on the future of policing – a Labour project, it should be noted – has called for their abolition. “The PCCs are just going to make the problems worse,” says Shami Chakrabarti. “You’re adding the frailty and temptation of someone who has been elected, who wants to play to the gallery.”

Lord Stevens has his own list of reforms, among them a plan to rationalise the current 41-force structure. But there is little proof that these steps will bring any more of a professional realignment. And when it comes to instituting any of these changes, one significant barrier remains: the divisions within the police themselves, who are as yet unpersuaded. Keith Vaz says the Government has failed to “carry the senior officers with them. They have not carried the rank and file with them, either.”

“Many senior police officers have never been part of neighbourhood policing teams at all,” said Professor Holdaway, a former police officer himself. “I don’t hear anyone talking about  the professionalisation of sergeants and  inspectors. If you want a more professional force, it’s them, not chief constables, who are the game changers.”

Both front-line officers I spoke to are similarly disenchanted about the connections of their day-to-day work with the top brass’s agenda. “It’s unfortunately rare to come across inspirational senior officers,” said one. “There are good people, but there are a lot who just shout for stuff to be done.” The other wrote in an email that “the current leaders are too deep in the culture of the past.”

Doreen Lawrence expressed anger over claims that Duwayne Brooks, a friend of her murdered son Stephen, had been secretly recorded (Getty) Doreen Lawrence expressed anger over claims that Duwayne Brooks, a friend of her murdered son Stephen, had been secretly recorded (Getty)
The picture, in summary, is of a force in transition – which, even if it still enjoys a powerful reputation around the world, has been left with its confidence in tatters by its annus horribilis. Those looking for comfort might find it in this: the crises that have engulfed the police this year may suggest deep cultural problems for which solutions are yet to be found, or they may point to a history that has already begun to fade.

But everyone agrees they are a step towards the kind of transparency that is an absolute prerequisite of substantive change. The next step, says Vaz, is to “turn the page”. “Everyone will need to give a little,” he adds. “We need to move on.” Shami Chakrabarti agrees, but adds her gloss on an Arabic proverb: “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel”. “I’ve met lots of people in the service who want to learn the lessons, but we need greater checks and balances,” she says.

Weirdly enough for a service that is beset with such transparently human flaws, as that process begins, the police retains one ineradicable strength: its people. “You can’t fail to be impressed and to admire the dedicated job that the vast majority of cops do,” says Nick Herbert, the Conservative MP who was policing minister from 2010 to 2012. “I saw it in every force I visited, great people, very brave people, and when things go wrong the people most let down are those people. But it’s important they don’t blame the critics. It’s important they understand that these problems have been caused by elements within the service. The problem isn’t that the light is being shone. The problem is that for too long it wasn’t shone.”

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