A Reply to Matthew Parris, “We Can’t Go on With Such Incompetent Police”

I began to notice everywhere, as I had not noticed before, what shockingly low standards of police competence and honesty were passing almost unremarked. Later I kicked myself for believing the police’s story about Hillsborough; and I’m ashamed of having looked away from troubling allegations of police brutality at Orgreave, just because I didn’t support the miners.

Ephiphany, the scales fell from Parris’s eyes. Times journalist Matthew Parris joins Tory MP David Davis and the Guardian in a call to the government to establish a Royal Commission on Policing in England and Wales. I only feel comfortable in writing about the Met, the charge sheet doesn’t look good:

  • 2005 – Shooting dead of Jean Charles de Menezes.
  • 2007 – Commander Andy Hayman resigns from the Met.
  • 2008 – Death of black musician Sean Rigg at Brixton Police Station.
  • 2009 – Death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protest.                                                                                  Fraud by Royalty Protection officers exposed by the Sunday Times.
  • 2011 – Phone hacking scandal erupts.                                                                                                          Commissioner Paul Stephenson forced to resign.
  • 2012 – Plebgate.
  • 2013 – Special Demonstration Squad’s infilitation of “subversives”, such as those                            campaigning  for justice for Stephen Lawrence, revealed.
  • 2014 – Allegations that restricted items confiscated from tourists visiting                                        Buckingham Palace had been “mishandled” and appeared on eBay.
  • 2015 – Allegations of kickbacks from security at Soho bars and strip joints to officers                  at Scotland Yard’s Westminster licensing unit.
  • The ongoing investigaton into police complicity in the murder of Daniel Morgan in                      1987.

Parris’s indictment is three-fold. The first offence:

Britain’s police seem able to collude without fear of any colleague ever breaking ranks.

In many of cases of alleged police malpractice, the cover-up eclipsed the original “crime”. Any investigation into police “canteen culture” needs to be mindful of the realities of the job. Esprit de corps, morale, trust is essential in a profession where men and women put their lives on the line. Battle-hardening sets in.  Ex-cop Paul Page told investigative journalist Michael Gillard:

It doesn’t take long for you to become very cynical. You see things the general public never will – murder victims, elderly muggings, rape victims, a child sexually abused, or facing death. Anyone who says joining the police doesn’t change the way you see society is a liar.

You take on a role. It is a tough life if you are lower down the social scale. There are people out there who don’t care what they have to do to get money and they don’t care about the police and will shoot them if they have to. Officers can get disgruntled over different things. Mainly that nothing’s going to be done, that [the criminal] will be out soon and they didn’t respect us.

At Marylebone there was a (small) hard core of “reliable officers”. There was the surface of policing and then another surface and those officers weren’t prepared to stand by and watch the real, hardened criminals who were daily causing misery to people to get away with it and there a concerted effort to target them and make their life a misery.

The “mobile classroom” was a police van we’d take out and violent criminals with no respect for the law and us as police officers was [sic] taken targeted and put in the van, driven round for ten minutes and “taught a lesson”, then kicked out.

None of them complained. They knew they were violent and got away with a lot of things. And in their eyes, I imagine it was, “Well it’s better than getting nicked.”.

The ties of “noble cause” corruption. Such bonds are reinforced by a degree of social isolation. Jerome Skolnick writes of the findings of a study for the last Royal Commission into Policing (1960-62):

In Britain, two thirds of a sample of policemen interviewed … stated difficulties in making friends outside of the force; of those interviewed 58 per cent thought members of the public to be reserved, suspicious, and constrained in conversation; and 12 per cent attributed such difficulties to the request that policemen be selective in associations and behave circumspectly.

The second area of concern identified by Parris is the “low calibre” of police officers. A decent wage should reduce the temptation of officers to gild the lily. David Buss, a Met PC 1973-88, recalled of his time before the police pay rise of 1979:

I remember being absolutely skint standing on the North End Road in Fulham, waiting for the pubs to shut at 10.30, and so for the chance to arrest a man for being drunk and disorderly. That meant you could take him to court the next morning: four hours overtime. I found it demeaning. You would be offered all sorts of freebies by publicans, even greengrocers, and you’d take them, because you were so badly paid.

Better pay, more men, more resources does not, despite the protestations of the Police Federation, necessarily yield better results. Simon Heffer, by no means a man of the Left, noted that crime doubled across the country between 1979 and 1991, despite the Tories trying to prove themselves the party of law and order.

As for attracting a higher class of recruit? Met Commissioner Lord Trenchard introduced the Hendon scheme in 1934, direct entry to the rank of inspector for educated young men. Discontinued on the outset of the Second World War, the creation of an officer class faced oppositon from police, politicians and public alike.

Parris’s final observation is the statement:

Something has gone very badly wrong with policing in Britain. I doubt it’s recent and suspect it’s been gradual. 

I disagree, my hunch is that the overall conduct of the police is a damn sight better than it was in the 1970s. Remember the words of Sir Robert Mark, Met Commissioner (1972-77):

I had served in two provincial police forces for thirty years and though I had known wrongdoing, I had never experienced institutionalized wrongdoing, blindness, arrogance and prejudice  on anything like the scale accepted as routine in the Met.

A decline in deference questioning of authority and a fall in public trust in institutions has sharpened the spotlight on police behaviour. Atoning for sins of the father at Hillsborough and Orgreave.

I join Matthew Parris in his call for the appointment of a Royal Commission on Policing in England and Wales. Such a body is no silver bullet. Writing of the Royal Commission on Police Powers and Procedures (1929), crime and police historian Clive Emsley comments:

The Royal Commission concluded that “black sheep” were responsible for the “isolated incidents” of misconduct, and from the testimony of “responsible and judicial authorities” its members formed a favourable opinion “of the conduct, tone and efficiency of the Police Service as a whole.”

An official inquiry must not be an excuse for whitewash. Honesty and openness on behalf of the police is crucial. Of attemps by commissioners Paul Condon and John Stevens (1993-2004) to manage malpractice, Michael Gillard and World In Action veteran Laurie Flynn note:

The Yard just can’t seem to get its story straight over the true scale of the corruption problem at any one time. In 1993, Roy Clark, when first pitching the Ghost Squad to commissioner Condon, claimed it was “probably very few”. In 1994, Roger Gaspar was said to be operating a list f 83 detectives. In 1996, Paul Condon told the Guardian there were 200 bent cops in his force. In December 1997 he told Parliament it was up to 250. In June 1999 Stevens reduced that to 50. Then two months later the CIB [Complaints Investigation Bureau] press office told The Job magazine “experience and current intelligence suggests the real numbers are much closer to 100”. And in an interview with Commander Andy Hayman in March 2000 we were told about “1,000 entries” on the CIBIC [CIB Intelligence Cell] computer, of which which 250 to 300 were “worth going for” and over the next three years “80 to 100 [were] real runners”.

Whatever form of an investigation into modern policing, it remains imperative to address the question: how to square the circle of police accountability with efficient execution of duty?

References

  • Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History (London: Longman, 2nd edn., 1996)
  • Simon Heffer, “How Twice the Crime is Twice as much reason to Play the Law and Order Card”, Spectator, 15 February 1992
  • Michael Gillard, For Queen and Currency: Audacious Fraud, Greed and Gambling at Scotland Yard (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)
  • _________ and Laurie Flynn, Untouchables: Dirty Cops, Bent Justice and Racism in Scotland Yard (London: Bloomsbury, 2nd edn, 2012)
  • Robert Mark, In the Office of Constable (London: Fontana, 1979)
  • Matthew Parris, “We Can’t Go On with such Incompetent Police”, The Times, 7 May 2016
  • Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd edn., 2000)
  • David Rose, In the Name of the Law: The Collapse of Criminal Justice (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996)
  • Jerome Skolnick, “A Sketch of the Policeman’s ‘Working Personality'”, in Tim Newburn (ed.), Policing: Key Readings (Cullompton: Willan, 2005)
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