Of the ever-lengthening list of charges against the police, a judge-led inquiry’s verdict of unlawful killing in the shooting of Azelle Rodney may not be the most egregious.
After all, the allegations that the Met conducted a smear campaign against the family of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence take some beating.
But yesterday’s ruling on the death of Mr Rodney – coming as it does not only eight years after the event, but also after exculpatory reviews by both the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service – nonetheless shines an unavoidably bright light on the endemic lack of accountability in British law enforcement.
The case of Mr Rodney is still far from closed. The officer who shot the 24-year-old known gangster six times in quick succession says he thought the suspect had picked up a gun; Sir Christopher Holland yesterday judged “he could not rationally have believed that”. Lawyers for the marksman hit back at the findings, branding them “irrational” in return. With the incident referred – once again – to the IPCC, and straight on to the CPS, the rights and wrongs may yet be decided in court.
They should be. But the fact that it has taken nearly a decade is unacceptable, not only out of consideration for the dead man’s family, but also for the officer who now faces trial for a split-second decision taken many years ago.
It ought not need to be said that if police are found to have been overzealous in discharging their duties, they should face the law just as any other citizen would. Time and again, however, the conclusions of the supposedly independent watchdog are found to be lacking.
Indeed, yesterday’s report from Sir Christopher merely emphasises the litany of incompetence, cover-up and corruption in the face of which the IPCC has been repeatedly proved at best toothless, at worst complicit in a “protecting our own” culture that is fundamentally undermining public trust in Britain’s police.
Put simply, decades of scandals – from the Birmingham Six to phone hacking, from the Hillsborough stadium disaster, to the death of Ian Tomlinson, to the still-unresolved shenanigans over “plebgate” – have left a stain on the reputation of Britain’s police that cannot be convincingly explained away. Nor are the statistics any more encouraging. Nearly 1,000 people have died in custody since 1990, without a single police officer receiving a jail term as a result. Similarly, out of 8,500 allegations of wrongdoing in the past three years, only 13 have led to a conviction.
In too many cases, it is only through dogged campaigning, and the resulting full-disclosure public inquiries, that the real stories emerge. And the recent slew of allegations over the bungled the Stephen Lawrence case – including the accusation that the Met targeted the Lawrence family and, as revealed by this newspaper, the claims that several other forces attempted to undermine the credibility of evidence to the subsequent Macpherson inquiry into police racism – suggest that, so far, we may only have scratched the surface.
Taken together, then, such revelations add up to a police culture where officers too often act with impunity. Although the vast majority of individuals do a difficult job with great courage and commitment, those that do not are shielded by a system that is closed, obfuscatory and a law unto itself.
After so many failures, the IPCC’s ability to hold the police to account must be in question. Yesterday’s report on the Rodney case only makes it more so. Until the handling of complaints is radically overhauled, public trust in the integrity of Britain’s police cannot begin to be restored.