When one thinks of the Metropolitan Police these days, what description comes to mind? A dynamic, united and responsive police force known primarily for its robust crime-fighting? Or a bloated, divided organisation, paralysed by political correctness whose name seems synonymous with scandal?
To the dismay of many of my constituents (or at least those living in the Westminster part of my seat) the latter description rings true. I well know that the Met is composed of many hard-working, dedicated – and very frustrated – men and women. But the antics of its upper echelons have degenerated into a soap opera with its leadership unable to take a grip. The inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell in 2005 begins today and will almost certainly be followed by fresh calls for the Met’s Chief Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, to resign.
It has been clear for some time that Sir Ian regards his role as a political extension of the government. He is a leader who has presided over – and arguably encouraged – a culture of mendacity within an organisation which is charged above all with solving crime rather than furthering a social justice agenda. Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, apparently lacks the will to take decisive action so I believe it is left to Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and his Deputy, Kit Malthouse, to push his hand.
In fairness to Sir Ian Blair, who took on the top job in 2005, the Met had already been losing its way. The Macpherson report which followed the murder of Stephen Lawrence, sent the Met into a cycle of soul searching which has ultimately seen it set aside the pursuit of effective policing methods to concentrate on its external image and public relations. The dreadful spate of gun and knife crimes in the Capital – seemingly out of control – has emerged as a by-product of a pervasive culture of political correctness. This has seen the stop and search policy scrapped and left innocent Londoners unprotected by the arm of the law for fear of reprisal.
No longer is detection or the catching criminals at the heart of its mission. The ‘customer friendly’ Met of recent years has become an organisation obsessed with diversity, in listening to – but not protecting – the communities it serves. Just last week, for example, my researcher, whose East London flat had been burgled in June, received a telephone call from the Met’s customer service team to ask her satisfaction level with the way in which the police handled the robbery. Questioned on her religion, race and sexuality, it appeared that progress on solving the crime was secondary to determining whether it fitted a category of hate-crime.
Ironically the more politically correct the Met has become – a drive heavily encouraged by Sir Ian – the more it has exposed itself to a culture of grievance which has resulted in high profile allegations of racism within its highest ranks. Take the recent scandal with Tarique Ghaffur, Assistant Commissioner of the Met until his suspension. Until Ghaffur felt sidelined over the policing of the 2012 Olympics he and Blair were close allies. He now contends that he has been the victim of racial discrimination, an allegation which in law is almost impossible to refute as a racist incident is now ‘any which is perceived to be racist by the victim’.
Forgive Londoners for not seeing this latest race row – during which the now-suspended Ghaffur will continue to take home his £180k salary until May next year – as being especially critical to dealing with the problems on the streets. When the top team is embroiled in such squabbles, focus inevitably rests on handling the media and carefully constructing a PR narrative, rather than on fighting crime.
But of course more shocking than Britain’s most politically-correct copper being accused of racism is the appalling handling of the de Menezes case. Within a week of the shooting in July 2005, I noted that the ‘heartening show of national unity at a time of crisis should not be used to silence dissent’. Indeed I found it ‘curious that the media was able to report almost immediately and without doubt that [Jean Charles de Menezes] was a terror suspect’.
At that time of heightened alert, when London had been so senselessly attacked only weeks before, I sensed that the general public did not truly care whether de Menezes had or had not been a terrorist. Had the Met put its hands up straight away and admitted that a terrible mistake had been made, I believe it would have been accepted. Instead, a mendacious and calculated attempt by senior figures in the Met to disguise events and influence public opinion followed. We were informed that de Menezes had worn bulky clothes, he was running; he vaulted the ticket barrier; a doctored photo demonstrated that he bore resemblance to a terror suspect; traces of cocaine had been found in his urine; he was an illegal immigrant (in fact he had a minor visa irregularity, hardly good reason for his summary execution).
When tragic incidents occur, there should be a culture of transparency and openness not a defensive conspiracy to cover-up and distort public opinion. How do we now approach the more recent case of Mark Saunders, the barrister shot dead by the Met in Chelsea during an armed siege earlier this year? Can we trust police accounts that maintain that Mr Saunders was presenting a threat when new evidence suggests that he was limply holding a gun and had been talking to police? It seems that despite the adverse scrutiny over de Menezes, I fear no lessons have been learnt. The Met now needs a clean sweep.
I am in the unusual position of representing a constituency which contains two police forces: the Met and the City of London Police. Like many MPs I regularly receive complaints about police action – or more accurately – inaction. However in my seven years in parliament I have to date received not a single complaint from any of my City of London constituents on such issues. My own experience in the City of London is that a locally responsive, accountable police force with discretion to deal with the problems of the locality makes a real difference.
Although the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) is answerable to the Mayor of London, there is very little direct accountability that Londoners have on the policing of our streets. Whilst I believe that a directly elected police commissioner for each London borough does not lie within the realms of practical politics, I wholly support David Cameron’s view that ‘the police are the last great unreformed public service’. I should like to see local residents – in London and beyond – being able to influence directly how crime and disorder is tackled in their area and see the police prioritise residents’ concerns in their work.
To the vast majority of Londoners the Met is on probation and many residents will naturally be attracted to radical solutions unless it shows the capacity to put its house in order. The introduction of greater accountability must be a long term project, however. For now, it should be for Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse to represent those who live in London in the absence of any leadership either from the highest ranks of the Met or from the Home Secretary. Whilst we wait for the crescendo of the de Menezes case, it is time for a public call for a Chief Commissioner who is able to restore the integrity of the Metropolitan Police.