Trust in the police is a precious commodity in a democratic state. In many countries the very idea that the police can be trusted would be risible. In such places the police are under-paid, under-educated, and over-armed – seen as flouting the law quite as often as they enforce it. Their uniforms and weapons give them a licence to bully and intimidate. Officers’ belief that they are above the law allows them to ride roughshod over the lives of those they are paid to protect.
We like to think we order things differently here. Along with a residual belief in the honesty of our politicians and diligence of our civil servants, this is one of the founding myths of our nation, which helps to ensure that the vast majority of the population pay their taxes with only a twinge of resentment, consoling themselves that most of the money is being properly used.
But trust in the British police is under threat, not from a single disclosure but from a whole array. Why did PC Keith Wallis feel confident enough of impunity to fake an email from an imaginary “witness” to the Plebgate incident? What slump in morale induced April Casburn, a high-flying detective chief inspector, to try to sell (or merely to give, as she maintained) information on the phone-hacking inquiry to the News of the World? Why do some of London’s most violent and successful criminals appear to lead charmed lives? What is the full truth about corrupt officers leaving the force and making lucrative new careers inside organised crime syndicates, as revealed last week by the Independent?
Yesterday the Independent on Sunday exposed yet another shocking scandal: a very senior officer in the Metropolitan Police was found to have been passing highly confidential information on decisions taken by the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, to the News of the World – yet the report on that corrupt relationship was not even considered by the Leveson Inquiry, the implication being that the matter it contained was considered too hot to be made public.
And in an interview with today’s Independent, the head of the Met’s Professional Standards Unit, Detective Chief Superintendent Alaric Bonthron, confesses that the elimination of corruption in the police is an impossible task. Coming from such an authoritative source, this opinion commands respect – but later he risks provoking derision by asserting that “99.9 per cent [of the police] are honest, law-abiding individuals”.
If the first statement is true, Mr Bonthron, then the second is the sort of soft soap we have been peddled for far too long. The restoration of the public’s confidence in the police is an urgent matter. The best first step would be for Mr Bonthron and his colleagues to level with us about the scale of the challenges they face. Failure to do so could have devastating consequences for public trust in one of our most important institutions.