You could tell that something had happened to public attitudes towards the police in Britain when Theresa May, the Home Secretary, addressed the Police Federation two months ago. She overturned one of the eternal laws of politics by laying into the officers’ trade union with the kind of blunt speaking once reserved for representatives of miners and printers.
This weakening of deference is a healthy and democratic change, but it has been brought about partly by the long failure of the police, as a profession, to reform itself. The most blatant miscarriages of justice have become harder for police officers to perpetrate, but it still seems that too many feel they can get away with conduct that would not be tolerated in any other part of society.
The revelation that undercover officers gathered intelligence on grieving families who were seeking redress against the Metropolitan Police will only reinforce this feeling. The latest cases are not surprising – not since we found out that Stephen Lawrence’s family had been spied on – but now that we discover that the families of Jean Charles de Menezes, Cherry Groce and Ricky Reel were treated the same, it still has the power to shock.
It is extraordinary that officers assumed that the Met had the right to defend itself, when they knew it had done something wrong, by using extreme crime-fighting measures against people seeking justice.
We accept that the police do an important and dangerous job. We can see that it may be frustrating for officers to see the vultures of left-wing extremists take up cases of alleged police brutality or incompetence. But there can be no excuse for spying on the families of people wronged, or alleged to be wronged, by the police.
Commissioners and chief constables have led important changes in police culture in recent decades, but forces are still far behind where they ought to be – in taking it for granted that their duty to the public is to be open when things go wrong, diligent in finding out the truth, and self-critical in seeking to learn from mistakes.