Leading Article: A true story that puts the police in the dock

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The Independent Online
Here is a true story, drawn from recent weeks. A youngish man went to his office Christmas party at a West End club. He had a few to drink, but left at around 11pm, reasonably early because there were young children at home, so he expected to be woken early. Sensibly, he wasn't driving, and set off in search of a taxi cab.

Just as he stepped out to cross the road a car came shooting past, and a siren suddenly blared out. He jumped back from the kerb in alarm, and, unwisely but not entirely surprisingly, shouted a foul-mouthed curse at the rapidly receding vehicle.

The vehicle was a police patrol car. As the man walked off, its driver scooted round a side street, eventually pulling up a little ahead. A large police officer jumped from the passenger side and marched up to our party- goer.

"Just wait here, my mate wants a word with you," the police officer said. Whereupon the officer driving the car emerged, walked up, and started jabbing his finger towards our friend's chest. Our friend was not daft, and had not drunk so much as to be unaware that he should remain conciliatory. Which he did. But the police officer did not. He culminated his rant by declaring: "If you're not careful I'll have you down the station in a cell and really sort you out."

Astonished by this, our party-goer turned to a passing woman, and asked: "Did you hear what he just said? Did he say what I thought he said?" "Yes, indeed," she replied, "and I'm as astonished as you." "Would you mind coming the police station and helping me file a complaint?" "Not at all," she replied, and off they went.

At the station, the party-goer then attempted to tell his tale. The attention he received was cursory. He demanded to see whoever was in charge. The officer who came in suggested that he'd had a bit to drink, and that in the cold light of day he might change his mind. It wasn't until the party-goer pointed out that he was a trained lawyer, and was determined to pursue his complaint, that the officer started to take it seriously.

When this story is told among normal, law-abiding people in London, none of them express surprise. Amazingly, they regard it as perfectly normal. And that is perhaps even more shocking than the event itself. Expectations of the behaviour of Metropolitan Police officers is appallingly low. People are very well aware that far and away the majority of police officers, even in the metropolis, are decent human beings who exercise enormous restraint and skilled judgment in the face of all kinds of stress and provocation. But it is virtually impossible to find a London citizen who has not had some bad experience or other with the Met. It is as common as being driven demented by the miseries of the Tube, or fed up with right- wing cabbies. It's part of the life of the city.

And it shouldn't be. In truth, it's a scandalous state of affairs to have - as we reported exclusively this morning - the largest police force in the country receiving 10,000 complaints from the public, leading to only 20 officers being disciplined. Of course, many of those complaints are diversions; they come from criminals and trouble-makers who want to cause problems for officers who are doing their duty as best they can. But that simply cannot account for the difference between 10,000 complaints and only 20 officers disciplined. It is too shockingly wide a gap to be explained in anything other than the obvious way: that officers get away scot-free, that members of the public are deterred from pursuing complaints, and that corruption and misbehaviour are swept under the nearest filing cabinet.

Every time that happens to a legitimate complaint, public faith in the police is undermined. Police forces cannot with one face encourage the public to come forward and help them in their often difficult task, while with another refuse to countenance the possibility that some of their colleagues are either nasty, or rotten. And it is no excuse whatever to say that some of the bad officers are shuffled away to retirement on health grounds. Far too much of that kind of evasion happens in the public service; it undermines accountability, and fails in the crucial objective of bolstering public esteem.

London (and the rest of Britain, indeed, but the problem is particularly acute in the capital) need police forces they can trust. Sir Paul Condon knows this, and knows that he needs to find a way of rooting out the 250- odd officers he believes are corrupt.

Obviously, tackling corruption matters more than common civility. But if any officer thinks it is acceptable to threaten to beat anyone up in a cell, whether or not they have committed an offence, he should be out of the force without ado. And be seen to be dismissed, too.