Illustration by Gregori Saavedra

What’s wrong with the police?

The force is under attack from left, right and centre—and now met commissioner Cressida Dick has resigned. So how did it come to this?
January 27, 2022

In court six of the Royal Courts of Justice last November, a 67-year-old man called Texo Johnson had his conviction for assault with intent to rob quashed. The chancellor of the High Court, Julian Flaux, told the handful of masked souls assembled that it was “most unfortunate that it has taken nearly 50 years to rectify the injustice suffered.”

It was 1972 when Johnson and five young friends, all black, who became known as the “Stockwell Six,” were arrested by police on the London underground, beaten up, framed and sent to jail or Borstal after an Old Bailey trial. Two of Johnson’s co-defendants, Cleveland Davidson and Paul Green, had also been cleared at the Court of Appeal in July 2021.

“My parents, who were Christian and who are dead now, never believed me,” Davidson told me. “My father, who didn’t believe the police would lie, said he would send me home to Jamaica. It ruined my life.”

They and many others were the victims of a corrupt detective sergeant in the British Transport Police (BTP) called Derek Ridgewell, who specialised in fitting up young black men at a time when there was a public panic about “mugging” on the underground. Ridgewell would soon follow his victims to jail after his own conviction for mailbag theft. He died in 1982, shortly after explaining candidly to the governor of Ford prison: “I just went bent.” Only now, half a century after the convictions, are those wrongs being righted.

Earlier last year, in a three-part BBC television documentary series called Bent Coppers, retired detectives recalled the widespread corruption of the 1960s and 1970s, when officers routinely got a “drink” (a bribe) to look the other way in cases where robbery and even murder was involved. One former City of London detective, Lew Tassell, described how senior officers were at it too: “the higher you went, the bigger the drink you got.”

Another three-part BBC series shown last year, A Killing in Tiger Bay, told the story of the murder of Lynette White in Cardiff in 1988. Despite the chief suspect being a lone white man, five black men were charged and three jailed for life for the killing, after a shameful investigation carried out by South Wales detectives. The three were eventually cleared on appeal and the real murderer, Jeffrey Gafoor, was finally jailed in 2003. Eight officers were charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in connection with the case, but their trial collapsed in 2011 and they were acquitted.

A third television series, Stephen, told the story of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and how the case was grimly bungled. The previous year Murder in the Car Park explained how no one had been convicted of the 1987 south London axe murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan, when allegations of police malpractice were rife. It has just led to Morgan’s family bringing an action for damages against the Metropolitan Police.

But these are historical errors, are they not? Ghosts of the past from the sixties, seventies, eighties? Different eras?

We fast-forward to the conviction of a serving Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens, for the rape and murder of Sarah Everard in 2021. Swiftly, Maggie Blyth, deputy chief constable of Hampshire, acknowledged at a police gathering that trust between women and the police had been “broken through some of the tragic events of the last few weeks and months.” At the same event, the victims’ commissioner and former Northumbria Police and crime commissioner, Vera Baird, addressed the police: “ask yourselves, after 30 reports and 30 years of women’s voices raised against violence against women and girls: why are you still not policing it properly?”

Free at last: Paul Green (left) and Cleveland Davidson celebrate after having their convictions overturned at the Court of Appeal. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo Free at last: Paul Green (left) and Cleveland Davidson celebrate after having their convictions overturned at the Court of Appeal. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Free at last: Paul Green (left) and Cleveland Davidson celebrate after having their convictions overturned at the Court of Appeal. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Then came the jailing in December of PCs Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis for passing on photos of the murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. That same month, the inquest into the death of one of the victims of serial killer Stephen Port was told by a witness that the Met was guilty of “institutional homophobia” because it had been so slow to link the deaths of four young gay men in east London, a story retold in the recent television series, Four Lives. Meanwhile the aftermath of Operation Midland—the protracted investigation into the fantastical, invented allegations about a VIP sexual abuse ring—still reverberates.

It is only a few months since Nuala O’Loan, concluding the inquiry into the Daniel Morgan murder, described the Met’s actions as constituting a form of “institutional corruption.” This was an echo of the 1999 Macpherson inquiry into the Lawrence case, which found the Met to be “institutionally” racist. Sue Fish, the former Nottinghamshire chief constable, critical of the way the police handled the Sarah Everard demonstration on Clapham Common, has suggested that “they were institutionally misogynistic in terms of their approach to the event.”

So what has happened to the institution that Robert Peel set up in 1829 under a set of oft-quoted principles, albeit in language rewritten and honed by others over the years, that proclaimed “the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police”?

Traditionally, a large majority of the public have trusted the police to “tell the truth.” An Ipsos MORI poll in 2020 put the level at 71 per cent, well above trust in lawyers (61), journalists (23) and politicians (15). But by the beginning of December last year the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, was confronted with an LBC poll that indicated 49 per cent of respondents in London no longer trust the police, while around one third of women aged between 18 and 30 actively distrust them.

“I do absolutely understand that in particular, not exclusively, the murder of Everard by a serving police officer has absolutely damaged people’s trust in us,” was Dick’s response on air. “That’s something I regret. It isn’t the only event this year where people have looked at what a very small number of my colleagues have been doing, or alleged to have been doing, and have felt very, very upset about that. The vast majority of my officers are good people, decent people.”

As the most senior police officer in the country, Dick—the first female and openly gay Met commissioner—has understandably been the target of the fiercest criticism and repeated calls for her resignation. She has had only tepid support from the home secretary, Priti Patel, and it was widely reported that the two-year extension of her contract was due to a lack of a suitable replacement.

Calls for commissioners to resign are not unusual: David McNee resisted pressure to go in 1982 after the eccentric Michael Fagan had entered the Queen’s bedroom. Paul Condon’s tenure (1993 to 2000) was overshadowed by the Lawrence case but he did not leave either, saying: “I honestly believe it would be the cowardly thing to slink away at this point, or at any point.” But Dick has faced much greater criticism, including from former colleagues like Sue Fish. Her first choice on Desert Island Discs was Kris Kristofferson’s song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” with its chorus line of “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” but she may now feel that, as the lightning rod for general anger against the police, she has already lost a lot in terms of public support.

In the past it was the liberal media and progressive politicians who attacked the “good, decent people” in the police. But now?

Here’s Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times: “why doesn’t someone set up a private police force? Motto: ‘we catch crims and lock them up and we don’t care about bicycle parking or diversity in the community’… I think all of us are fed up with the police at the moment… they want to fight crime but their hands are tied by idiotic inclusivity. Imagine freeing them from this tyranny and swelling their numbers with former soldiers and security guards and prison officers who don’t care one jot about the wellbeing of the criminal, only the victim.”

Tom Slater in the Spectator agreed: “the great awokening of the British constabulary has got to be the most curious and infuriating part of our culture war. While knife crime continues to rise, an inordinate amount of police time now seems to be taken up by various virtue-signalling initiatives.”

So the police are being attacked left, right and centre—for sexism, racism, homophobia, inefficiency and corruption and now for their efforts to address some of those failings. How did we get here?

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Under fire: Met Police chief Cressida Dick. Image: Ming Yeung/Getty Images

David Thompson is the West Midlands chief constable, the vice chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and its lead on inclusion and race. He is acutely aware of the current crisis. In the wake of the Everard case, he wrote on his blog: “I cannot think of anything quite like this in policing’s history… Police officers have extraordinary powers and the fact these powers have been used to commit these crimes has damaged public trust.” He added: “some individuals are attracted to policing because it gives them power, access to vulnerable people, an ability to coerce others to get their own way.” He has been outspoken over these issues and noted on his blog that he has been “pilloried on social media for marching in Pride, the same happens when I fast at Eid with Muslim officers, support black officers or seek to support women’s issues.”

So did he feel, as we spoke at the very end of last year, that 2021 marked the lowest point for the police during his career?

He quoted the words of the former Met commissioner, Robert Mark: “the police are the anvil on which society beats out the problems and abrasions of social inequality, racial prejudice, weak laws and ineffective legislation.” While he believes that the current levels of anger are greater than at any previous time he does not feel it is, as some commentators suggest, a momentous turning point.

“I’m always very nervous about ‘watersheds,’” he said. For him the current major issues are how the police address the concerns of women and girls and how racism is dealt with. “I think policing is in a lot better state than it was 10 years ago but expectations are that much higher… we are better at representing women and there are more women in the police than there are men in nursing.” But he said that the imbalance between male and female officers—70 per cent to 30 per cent—had still to be overcome. He added that the police have a much more complex job than a few decades ago, not least now because of the extra pressures of Covid.

“In the last 10 years the policing mission has expanded dramatically and lots of things are coming to the police door for response,” he said. “Additionally, the police are now expected to deal with modern slavery, fraud, organised crime… We police a very complex modern Britain.”

What he saw as “the velocity of social media” had had a particular effect on the police, he said. “Every image can go global. I think we should not be defensive about that… We are always going to be high profile.”

In terms of whether the police should accept being called “institutionally racist,” he feels it is unhelpful if that means a “burn the house down” approach, but believes it is important to recognise the police is still a predominantly white, male organisation: “if we constantly challenge ourselves it can be very helpful.”

John Apter became chairman of the Police Federation in 2018, representing 130,000 officers. He was happy to talk about the issues to me in early December. But within three weeks of our conversation, he was suspended by his force, Hampshire police, following allegations of “sexual touching,” including an incident at a police bravery awards ceremony. His role was taken over by his deputy, Che Donald.

The police are being attacked for sexism, racism and homophobia as well as their efforts to address these failings

“We deal with all of the issues of a ‘broken society,’” was what Apter had said. “Policing has become so much more political over the last few years. My colleagues tell me that they very often feel like political pawns.”

In her speech to the Superintendents’ Association conference last September, Priti Patel gave what amounted to an ideological justification for not raising police wages along with those of NHS workers: “the pandemic deepened the disparity between public and private sector wages. Many private sector workers lost their jobs, were furloughed, or saw their hours and wages seriously reduced. This meant the chancellor could not justify an across-the-board pay increase for public sector workers.” This angered all police ranks and there is little love lost—or trust—between them and the home secretary.

The president of the National Black Police Association, Andy George, who serves in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, believes that there has not been such criticism of the service at any time since the Macpherson report. Does he think it would be helpful if the police service was to accept that it was, for instance, “institutionally racist?” “I think it would not only be helpful, I think it’s essential to move everything forward.” He sees race as “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of what the police now have to address. But he would still recommend that people enlist whatever their ethnic background, particularly on his home turf, where ethnic minority officers make up only 0.5 per cent of the force: “I would still advise people to join—it’s a great career.”

The recent high-profile deaths on duty of officers Matt Ratana—shot dead in a custody suite in Croydon—and Andrew Harper—dragged to his death by a car in Berkshire—were a reminder of the risks inherent in the job. But much greater attention in the media is now paid to the scandals of crimes carried out by police officers themselves. Why so?

Relations between the police and the media changed in the aftermath of the Leveson inquiry in 2011-2012, which was prompted by Nick Davies’s exposé in the Guardian of phone-hacking by the News of the World. That led to the arrest of more than 60 journalists and, although only a handful were convicted, reporters and police were no longer so close.

“There’s no doubt that police are under attack from a wider spectrum of the media and society in general in this era,” says one crime correspondent. “Who benefits from the fractured police/media relationship? It’s definitely not the public, as there’s far less accountability of the establishment. The government are the real winners. It suits their purpose for police and the media to be at loggerheads… not only are police a more likely and convenient scapegoat for failings in the justice system, but reporters are also far less likely to get any embarrassing info [about politicians] from cops with a gripe.”

Tony Thompson, the former Observer crime correspondent and now editor of Police Professional magazine, sees many factors responsible for the current crisis. “At the moment the levels of hostility and the pressure they’re under in terms of legitimacy and trust are probably greater than they have ever been.” He believes that the effects of austerity, with deep cuts in personnel, and the extra burdens of Covid created “a perfect storm.”

“Austerity did the police no favours, and we got to a situation where people would be the victim of a crime and wouldn’t even bother to report it to the police because they had no confidence that they would be able to do anything,” he says. “We lost neighbourhood policing and then the pandemic put the police in a position that they hadn’t been in before, where they were directly opposed to the public going about what would normally be legitimate daily activities.

“Since the pandemic, assaults on the police have gone up 20 per cent, which is a huge number, and I think the way that people see the police now isn’t the way it was before. They’re seen as people who get in the way and aren’t doing a very good job.”

As regards the press coverage of the police, “I think the media are more hostile because the public is becoming more hostile and they are just reflecting that.” On the role of the government, he says: “politicians are very good at making a lot of noise but, in the end, what they really have to do is massively increase funding. We need to double the number of police officers that we have.” On the issue of the police reflecting society, he says: “the recruitment of mixed-race and Asian officers has been really successful, but in terms of black officers has been abysmal. Black officers are more likely to be disciplined and fired, so I don’t think the situation has really been improved that much.”

John Grieve, the former deputy assistant commissioner at the Met who headed the anti-terrorist and racial crime units and now lectures on policing, served in the Met from 1966 to 2002. Why does he think there is currently such unrelenting disapproval?

“The criticism is familiar and has happened before, but this time it seems very different. There are several factors at play. There are the shadows of the past—the hand grenade passed from in-tray to in-tray (the mishandled investigation into the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan was on the desks of no fewer than seven Met commissioners) and what he saw as “institutional complacency” was a major problem.

“There is also now a whirlwind of pressures from interested parties and the strength of social media.” Grieve believes that the criticism is now part of a global movement, most notably through what is happening with Black Lives Matter and the Defund the Police movements in the United States. “The police also have to avoid sounding complacent, insincere or unapologetic. There was a feeling that we lost sight of where true north was on the moral compass… There is also currently a general mood, as you see with the anti-vax movement, of people not liking to be told what to do.” He feels that there will always inevitably be criticism of the police. “If you’re not up to being criticised you’re in the wrong job.”

A bent detective sergeant can so easily damage countless young lives

Last year, a book called Rot at the Core explored how Ridgewell was able to get away with framing the Stockwell Six and others. Its authors are former BTP detective superintendent Graham Satchwell, and Winston Trew, another of Ridgewell’s victims—one of the so-called Oval Four, who had his own 1972 mugging conviction quashed in 2019. Satchwell feels that we are in unprecedented times: “all these problems arise as a result of two fundamental failures: a lack of senior police leadership and a lack of government appetite for meaningful change in the police… They say we all get the police service we deserve, and collectively we do.

“It was always the case that research showed the police were most supported by those who had had no dealings with them. That was once the vast majority of the population. In those days the majority took their view of the police from the national dailies and the BBC. Now for obvious reasons the public is much more aware of police failings but, in reality, the failings have always been there.”

While individually Dick and collectively the Met may have been the targets of the angriest attacks, others have also come under fire. Just after Christmas, it emerged that a Merseyside officer had taken a selfie at a murder scene, sent homophobic and racist messages and had resigned before he was sacked; his force was criticised for not acting earlier. A few days before, the new chief constable of West Mercia, Pippa Mills, apologised to the family of the former footballer Dalian Atkinson, who died after an officer in Telford had tasered him and kicked him in the head; the officer was jailed for manslaughter last year. Avon and Somerset Police clashed famously with protesters in Bristol over the statue of Edward Colston. (The four on trial for criminal damage were acquitted.) And there is still dismay directed towards South Yorkshire Police over their handling of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, dismay which came to a head last year over the failure of prosecutions against officers.

In Scotland, too, there has been sustained recent criticism. In December, Police Scotland paid £1m in compensation to the family of a woman, Lamara Bell, who died alongside her partner having being left for three days in a crashed car, after officers failed to respond to a call from a farmer who had spotted the vehicle. Last October a female firearms officer, Rhona Malone, won her employment tribunal case against Police Scotland because of a “horrific” workplace culture condemned as an “absolute boys’ club.” In 2020, an independent report into Police Scotland carried out under the supervision of the former lord advocate, Elish Angiolini, found “very worrying evidence” of discriminatory behaviour and a problem with a machismo “canteen culture,” which contributed to a “racist, misogynistic or emotionally damaging environment.”

Does all this affect recruitment? In January last year, the Home Office launched its drive to hire 20,000 new officers by 2023 as part of a 2019 manifesto commitment. It received 100,000 applications and speedily hired 6,000. While this may have much to do with the fragile state of the jobs market, the rationale behind the successful advertising slogan used decades ago in a bid to attract people to policing—“dull it isn’t”—probably also still holds true in days when the alternatives on offer may be delivery driving or call centre work.

How are they recruited? Here’s how the Northamptonshire Police website encourages young people to take the route known as the Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship: “you will be a police officer from the first day, earn a competitive apprenticeship salary with the potential to earn up to £41,130 in just seven years. That means gaining a degree you don’t have to pay for, while working in the job as a police officer.” Not bad?

But Nick Adderley, that force’s chief constable, told the Police Oracle website that many new recruits were very young; one 19-year-old had left after just three days, saying the job wasn’t what he expected.  “A lot of them have no life experience,” he told me. “We’ve got a very young workforce who think they’re invisible [to potential assailants] as in ‘it can’t possibly happen to me’... And we’ve got a society which is becoming more violent, with a prevalence to use violence against police officers.”

In December 1992, I wrote a piece for the Guardian headlined “Corrupt. Racist. Sexist. Oh, and cruel to animals. Meet Britain’s guardians of law and order.” It opened: “they’re corrupt. They’re racist. They’re sexist… To the casual reader of the British press over the past three months that would be a fairly accurate description of Britain’s police.” To show how attacks were not new, I quoted Richard Jackson, the former head of the CID who wrote in his 1967 memoir, Occupied with Crime: “in the old days, children were taught to trust the police. Now an entire generation has been taught to distrust the police and to despise what the police stand for.” Whether the 1960s or the 1990s—not to mention the previous century when, in 1877, vast jeering crowds greeted police officers charged with corruption in what became known as the “Trial of the Detectives”—the institution of policing has regularly come under attack for its failings.

What is new and underlies the scandals and dismay is the current state of the entire criminal justice system, which, in living memory, has never been in such incompetent political hands. Only Rory Stewart, during his brief time as prisons minister between 2018 and 2019, seemed to grasp what was happening. Others have mainly postured, botched and buck-passed—with home secretaries leading the way.

Thus the Met’s grant from central government fell by 29 per cent between 2011 and 2019, leading to predictable shortages of personnel. The disastrous dismantling and privatisation of the probation service under former justice secretary Chris Grayling left lasting damage. Prison overcrowding will be exacerbated by Patel’s determination, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—which led to the “Kill the Bill” protests—to increase jail terms and criminalise everyone from troublesome climate demonstrators to Gypsies and Travellers; it is estimated that a further 20,000 prison places will be needed, ensuring that the UK remains top of one western European league at least—the number of people behind bars per head of population. The courts system is in chaos: since 2010, half the magistrates courts in England and Wales—162 of the 323—have been closed and sold off, making justice more erratic and remote. More than 600 police stations in England and Wales, over half the total, have also been shut down in that time, further removing the police from the public. The government could claim to be the Defund the Police movement’s most active supporter.

So what does the government do to address all this? In December the prime minister announced a new War on Drugs. This just as an increasing number of former and serving police officers are expressing concerns about the absurdity of the existing legislation and having grown-up discussions about decriminalisation and legalisation—as has already happened in a growing number of countries, from Canada to Portugal. (Malta has just announced the legalisation of cannabis for personal use.) Johnson publicised his new policy by going on a raid dressed up as a police officer, just as Patel often does for her frequent photo-ops, looking more like overgrown children at a fancy-dress party than politicians confronted with a major crisis of confidence in their law enforcement officers.

It took nearly half a century to address the fact that a bent detective sergeant could so easily damage countless young lives. Last year, the current BTP chief constable, Lucy D’Orsi, apologised for Ridgewell’s behaviour. She said: “in particular, it is of regret that we did not act sooner to end his criminalisation of British Africans, which led to the conviction of innocent people.” She added that “we cannot undo the past, but we can learn from it.” In response to the apology, Trew, one of Ridgewell’s victims, said: “It’s too little and too late. They knew about his corruption as long ago as 1973 and sat on their hands. The evidence was always there.”

The media is now less co-operative and entwined and the public less placid and patient than 50 years ago. Time is short and Robert Mark’s anvil is battered. As those Peel principles suggest, the police are, in many ways, the public. And if the public elect politicians—those ultimately responsible for making laws and running the criminal justice system—whose main concerns seem too often to be their chums, their ideologies, their second jobs and their majorities, then scandals and dismay there will ever be.