Police scandal and reform: can we break out of more of the same?

We should abandon the idea that the police alone keep us safe from crime and that everything else must defer to that goal.

Ian Loader is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford and was a member of the Independent Commission on the Future of Policing. He writes in a personal capacity 

So we now know that the Metropolitan Police withheld evidence about possible corruption from the Macpherson Enquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and tasked an undercover officer with spying on the Lawrence Family.

These latest revelations join a long list of police scandals. Some like Plebgate are of recent vintage. Others have run for decades, notably Hillsborough and the Lawrence case itself. Some command attention and investigation – like the unlawful killing of Ian Tomlinson; others barely press on public consciousness, such as deaths in police custody.

This gives the latest revelations a quality that is both familiar and shocking, and political reactions to them the unmistakably whiff of having been here, and tried this, before. But in the midst of another bout of enquiries, apologies and ‘we-promise-to-do-better’, certain questions are passing unasked, or too lightly answered.

I want to dwell on four of them which get us to the heart of what is truly at stake in the ongoing saga of police scandal.

First: why did someone in the Metropolitan Police ask themselves ‘Shall we spy on the Lawrence family?’ and then answer the question ‘Yes?’

What take on the world produces that question and an affirmative answer to it? It is a worldview which holds that the most vital thing the Metropolitan Police can do is to protect its own reputation – no matter who gets hurt and how much injustice is perpetrated, or left unchecked, along the way.

In this respect the Metropolitan Police has started to resemble the Catholic Church – two sacred institutions whose counter-productive response to the wrongdoing of their members has been to sacrifice victims in an effort to repair breaches of authority. In the police case there is an important additional element: the stubborn belief that the police form a thin-blue-line standing between law-abiding citizens and a world of dangerous criminals and terrorists.

If one holds this view, it is a short step to believing that protecting people and controlling the streets demands a vigilant effort to defend the reputation of the organization that keeps chaos at bay – whatever the cost. This is a step that the Metropolitan Police Service appears to have taken.

The stubborn persistence and motivational power of this Manichean outlook also offers some clues to a second puzzle: Why have the police got stuck in an eternal present made up of ‘turning corners’, ‘fresh starts’ and ‘new dawns’, each of which is simply a prelude to further revelation and scandal?

The answer to this question may lie in the fact that, for all the liberalizing reform of recent years (and certain things have got better), police officers are moved to join the service and perform their duties day and night because they want to keep good people safe from bad people. They want to be given the powers needed to conduct this unpleasant, thankless task on our behalf, to be supported in using them, and then for everyone else to clear out of the way while they get on with the job.

They are also wedded to powers and practices that give the appearance of efficacy in the ‘fight against crime’ irrespective of any negative consequences – hence why the police tenaciously cling to stop-and-search in the face of all good evidence about repeated false positives and attendant reputational damage.

This worldview still has its cheerleaders and we should not forget that first Thatcherite and then Blairite ‘law-n-order’ rhetoric set the frame in which police failings and malpractice have repeatedly occurred. But among the police a ‘Dirty Harry’ stance that was common, and commonly aired, in the 1970s has gone underground, morphed into a view that dare not speak its name.

It remains, however, the idea in which officers invest their emotional energy and against which legal rules, diversity issues, anti-corruption units are the like are coded as a distraction. At the very least, officers appear not to ‘get’ the moral weight of these latter aspects of police work in anything approaching the same way as they ‘get’ their crime-fighting mandate. The result: a state of recurring malpractice and scandal.

Third, words seem to have lost the capacity to capture and describe adequately how the Metropolitan Police has behaved (or is behaving).

The police have scandalized us too often; one cannot exist in permanent crisis; we cannot fully grasp what it means for the police to be ‘out of control’. So instead the issue gets reduced to one of ‘public trust and confidence’.

Theresa May bemoans the damage the latest Lawrence revelations will have done to such trust; Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe vows (again?) to rebuild it. But here’s another puzzle: there is not much evidence that the scandals that fill our newspapers have dented public confidence in the police, which remains surprisingly high. Why is this?

Partly it is because people judge the police locally – according to their own experience (this is why trust is lowest among poor ethnic minority males). But it is also because public trust in the police is essentially a leap of faith. We place our trust in the police because, in an important sense, we have to.

Faced with a scandal after scandal indicating that the British police are out of control, people stare into the abyss . . . and then look away. It is simply too discomforting to think that one lives in a society like that. So people recoil from the conclusion towards which any hard-headed appraisal of the evidence would lead.

This fact should concentrate relevant minds on why abuses of police power matter and need to be addressed even if the public don’t appear to notice. It should also lead senior officers to thank their lucky stars that they do not work in hospital administration or anywhere else in the public service. Were it not for the sacred quality that attaches to the police as the source of social order, the Metropolitan Police would have long since been disbanded.

This brings us to a fourth puzzle: why the impoverished response? Why are we so at a loss to know what else or better to do to put things right or to at least stem the flow of malpractice? Why is the only tool we have for thinking about the importance of scandals that of ‘trust and confidence’ – as if the content of police behaviour only matters in so far as it affects public opinion?

It is not only our language that fails to measure up – so too does our politics. Theresa May establishes another public enquiry despite the fact that the Metropolitan Police misled the last one. Owen Jones rails against the Metropolitan Police in The Guardian only to conclude that we kick the matter into a Royal Commission. The Stevens Commission’s recommendation to create a powerful new independent standards body is given renewed urgency.

It is not that these measures are not necessary, they may even improve things. So too might other more radical steps – perhaps now is the time to think hard about whether the Metropolitan Police is systemically dysfunctional and ought to be broken up.

We need to keep in mind, however, that the chances of any such measure succeeding depend upon something else: the genuine (rather than half-hearted) abandonment of the idea that the police and the police alone keep us safe from crime and that everything else must defer to that goal.

It is the affective over-investment in the idea of a policing solution to crime that ultimately prevents the police from escaping the condition of permanent crisis in which they have for too long been lodged.

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2 Responses to “Police scandal and reform: can we break out of more of the same?”

  1. LB

    All drip drip, and the minor problem. Sack the corrupt and incompetent cops, and the police can say its all ok.

    The more insideous and dangerous, is with technology. With more and more crimes being filmed, the police’s attitude is to ignore them.

    That leads to people questioning, why am I paying tax for the police when they do nothing.

    With video, that gets published.

    With recording of conversations, the attitude becomes public.

    The police and us will be screwed by this attitude.

  2. Angry Harry

    The fact that ongoing corruption occurs at the very top suggests that corruption is endemic and acceptable to those in the justice system. e.g.


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