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Time for an enquiry into the culture of the police

2012 September 13

In the shock provoked by the revelations about the systematic police cover-up after the 1989 Hillsborough disaster another incident was widely overlooked yesterday. In Southwark Crown Court an ex-policeman, Ryan Coleman-Farrow, admitted deliberately bungling 11 rape cases – faking records, falsifying witness statements and lying about forensic analysis. The case underscored the grim reality that Hillsborough is not some isolated aberration from decades ago but part of a long pattern of unethical police practices which continues today.

For the past four decades scandals have regularly punctuated the history of British police. The cases of the Birmingham Six, Guildford 4, Blair Peach, Stephen Lawrence, Roger Sylvester, Mikey Powell, Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson – to name but a few – have all cast doubt on the truthfulness and integrity of the British police. The cases have exposed a range of problems from incompetent racist stereotyping to the downright misinformation involved in announcing that Mr de Menezes was a “suspected terrorist” wearing a padded jacket with wires sticking out, who had run away from the police and jumped a ticket barrier.

The Macpherson Inquiry into the Lawerence case exposed deep-rooted institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police which suggested that officers had more in common with the white murderers than with the black victims – whose reputation they sought to smear much as senior South Yorkshire officers did with the 96 Hillsborough victims.  The Tomlinson case revealed what the Independent Police Complaints Commission described as the “simply staggering” acceptance of ill-disciplined behaviour when it emerged that the policeman who assaulted Mr Tomlinson had faced disciplinary hearings in two separate police forces previously before being allowed to join the Met’s elite Territorial Support Group.

We ask our police to do a difficult and dangerous job. It is one which requires the creation among officers a sense of loyalty, camaraderie and internal strength. But that is not the same thing as the secrecy, closed ranks, obfuscation and dissembling which has become rooted deep in police culture.

Attempts of being made to change that. Many police chiefs are trying to instil a greater sense of integrity in their forces. The government is introducing elected police commissioners in the hope of injecting greater public accountability to policing. The Home Secretary has announced reforms, unpopular with many police officers, to recruit senior officers from outside the system which currently requires police chiefs to have worked their way up through the ranks.

None of that is enough to cauterise the current corrupt culture. Dame Anne Owers, the new head of the Independent Police Complaints Commission has raised questions about the ability, or willingness, of forces to investigate their own officers for corruption after revealing that more than 8,500 allegations of wrongdoing against the police over the past three years resulted in just 13 criminal convictions. A more independent system is needed. The police watchdog needs the resources to investigate more of those cases. The merging of the nation’s separate police forces into one national body might crack open some of those closed local cultures. Improved police training is needed but also, more fundamentally, a raising of the levels of education required for new recruits.

There must be far more. To discern what requires serious in-depth scrutiny. The Leveson Inquiry was supposed to focus on corrupt relationships between police and politicians, as well as police and press, but appears to be focusing primarily on the ethics of the press. It is not to minimise the issues thrown up by the phone-hacking scandal to say that the corrupt culture of institutional self-protection within the police is a far more grave systemic problem for society. A full judicial inquiry into the ethics and behaviour of the police is now required if we are to achieve the kind of root and branch reform which is needed.

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