On listening to a televised discussion about the News of the World phone tapping scandal recently, I was struck by the general acceptance of the Metropolitan Police as an almost mendacious organisation whose word cannot be trusted. Amidst talk of whether or not the case represented a watershed for privacy law, not one of the guests (drawn from a range of political backgrounds) had any confidence in the thoroughness of the Met’s original investigation. Of particular note was the suspicion that ascertaining whether a crime had been committed was secondary to the importance of the Met maintaining good relations with the media.
Whether the guests’ analysis was fair or not, it is clear that even (perhaps especially) amongst the metropolitan middle classes, trust and confidence in the Met is still very fragile in wake of the gunning down of the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, and the subsequent catalogue of attempts to cover up what happened on that fateful day four years ago this week.
The televised discussion came just days after the Evening Standard revealed that Metropolitan police officers are currently facing 255 complaints of racism. Of these, 238 were submitted by the public and 17 are internal allegations of misconduct. The Chairman of the Black Police Association was quoted as saying that whilst he thought half the cases would amount to nothing (in general, only 3 in every 200 of all complaints against officers are ever upheld), it was still a significant amount ‘in a police force that is no longer supposed to be institutionally racist’.
Here lies the heart of the problem. In so loudly trumpeting its politically correct credentials in recent years, the Met has left itself wide open to accusations of discrimination. It is almost axiomatic that any public body making a song and dance of its commitment to equality finds itself similarly engulfed in controversy.
This issue relates directly to the deficit of trust in the capital’s police force. After the Macpherson report that followed the unsolved murder of Stephen Lawrence, the UK’s largest police force (31,000 officers strong) was sent into a cycle of soul searching that saw it set aside the pursuit of effective policing methods to concentrate on its external image and public relations. In troublesome inner city areas, the Met lacked the confidence aggressively and visibly to protect the innocent, with stop and search and patrols cast aside to concentrate instead on listening to residents and chasing diversity targets.
Worst of all, the obsession with image extended to the public relations ‘handling’ of police blunders, most notably but not only after the de Menezes affair, which followed several other contentious firearms incidents. As I have described before, rather than openly admitting the errors that were made in that case, the Met defensively covered up its mistakes and deliberately attempted to distort public opinion. It revealed a dark culture of mendacity in an increasingly politicised organisation.
Given the high profile unravelling of the de Menezes matter, it was little wonder that the public greeted with suspicion the more recent death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in my constituency. In the aftermath of that incident, I met with the Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the body investigating police behaviour on that fateful day, after receiving a huge number of letters from horrified constituents. At that stage, initial inquiries suggested that the Met had immediately been more open about what had occurred and seemed to have learnt the lessons of Stockwell. Regardless, in the public’s mind the hangover from the mendacious and politically paranoid culture in the Met will take time to dissipate.
Thankfully change is afoot. Since the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London, and the appointment of Kit Malthouse (a vocal critic of Sir Ian Blair’s Met) as Deputy Mayor for Policing, some significant structural and leadership changes have been put in place that will hopefully sweep away the remnants of that culture. Most notably, we have a new Commissioner and the Mayor has taken over the chairmanship of the Metropolitan Police Authority, injecting for the first time a degree of direct democratic accountability into the organisation.
But along with these changes, Kit Malthouse has helped ensure there is a new top team, a fresh area structure, further transparency and a new performance regime. I can already see the effect of these changes on my local borough force. In recent discussions with the new Westminster Commander Simon Bray and one of his deputies, it is clear that police are keen to be more visible. In South Westminster, officers are being ordered out of their cars and told to walk past crime hotspots such as Victoria Station each time they make their way back to base. Important minutiae such as the disciplining of officers for failing to uphold standards of uniform and gum chewing on patrol are being enforced. Similarly low level crime and disorder are being focused on – ticketing unruly cyclists; dealing innovatively on estates with the owners of disruptive and dangerous dogs; banning consumption of alcohol on public transport.
The focus on serious crime across London is intensifying too. Since the Mayor launched Operation Blunt 2 in May, there have been 275 000 stop and searches, leading to 9600 arrests and the seizure of 5000 knives, guns and other weapons. Many Londoners will also have noticed the increased use of knife arches at key stations. This coincides with the rolling out last month of new hub teams at major interchanges and extra officers at outer London rail stations to crack down on low level crime and disorder on the transport system.
We will always face a daunting task in policing a capital as vibrant, crowded and free as London. No doubt amidst the leadership crises of recent years, many dedicated officers have done a sterling job and I do believe that the introduction of new neighbourhood policing teams under Ken Livingstone has proved a good thing. In particular many Londoners have benefited from a genuine partnership between committed local authorities, residents’ groups, community support officers and the Met. Rightly Boris and Kit have sought to build on the best of this legacy. However, the culture of political correctness and a shift in focus away from hands-on policing had robbed officers of a confidence of mission.