Imagine you lived in a country which last year had 3,000 allegations of police corruption. Worse, imagine that of these 3,000 allegations only half of them were properly investigated — because for police officers in this country, corruption was becoming routine. Imagine that the police increasingly used their powers to crack down not on criminals but on anyone who dared speak out against them. What sort of a country is this? Well, it’s Britain I’m afraid — where what was once the finest, most honest service in the world is in danger of becoming rotten.
Some of this was revealed in a little-noticed report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, which went on to deliver some even more shocking news. Nearly half of 17,200 officers and staff surveyed said that if they discovered corruption among their colleagues and chose to report it, they didn’t believe their evidence would be treated in confidence and would fear ‘adverse consequences’. This appalling lack of protection for whistle-blowers — often amounting to persecution — has become commonplace throughout the public services and creates a climate in which dishonesty and malpractice flourish.
The second report, compiled by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, bears this out. It says there has been a sharp increase over the past five years in the number of police officers dealing heroin, cocaine and amphetamines and an equally startling rise in the number of officers abusing their power ‘for sexual gratification’ — in other words bullying or cajoling suspects, witnesses and even victims into having sex with them.
Just this week, in fact, it emerged that the Met suspended 73 coppers, community support officers and other staff on corruption charges in the past two years. They cited drug crimes, bribery, theft, fraud, sexual misconduct and — everybody’s favourite — un-authorised disclosure of information. Eleven were convicted in court, but what happened to the others? The Met spokesman said rather blandly that some were allowed to resign or retire (presumably with full pension rights) and some were dismissed.
This rise in corruption and the apparent reluctance of police chiefs to fight it is a toxic combination. As ever, chief constables blame lack of resources for not being able to pursue inquiries into claims of malpractice. But what could be a greater priority than ensuring that their own officers are not breaking the law? These same police chiefs seem to find endless funds to pursue ancient sex abuse allegations, chase people who say unpleasant things on Twitter and prosecute journalists.
The vast majority of Britain’s police do a sometimes extremely arduous job with honesty, skill and good humour. But corruption left unchecked can infect entire forces. Anyone who doubts this need only study the lessons of the not-too-distant past.
Forty-five years ago the Times splashed across its front page a sensational story that led ultimately to what became known as ‘The Fall of Scotland Yard’. Under the headline ‘London policemen in bribe allegations’, it revealed a tale
The story, backed by taped conversations, bluntly accused three Yard detectives of planting evidence and taking back-handers from criminals ‘in exchange for dropping charges, being lenient with evidence in court, and for allowing a criminal to work unhindered’. If it had been just those three rogue officers, the story might quickly have been forgotten. But the tapes hinted at a far more endemic culture of graft and criminality.of corruption that came as a profound shock to a nation accustomed to seeing its constabulary through the prism of Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars. A leading criminal lawyer of the time remarked: ‘It was like catching the Archbishop of Canterbury in bed with a prostitute.’
Over the next few years, the Obscene Publications Squad was exposed as a tawdry protection racket extracting regular tithes from pornographers and Soho club-owners; drugs squad officers were shown to be running illegal cannabis deals; and half the Flying Squad was in the pay of criminals. These were not the clandestine activities of a few low-ranking detectives on the take. Whole squads were involved and the seniority of some of those taken down at the Old Bailey was shocking. In the words of trial judge Mr Justice Mars-Jones, it was ‘corruption on a scale that beggars description’.
The exposures of these corruption rackets had one thing in common — they were all revealed in the first place by the efforts of Britain’s free press. But these journalists could not have achieved all they did without the help of whistleblowers. Some of these were pornographers and criminals tired of being milked and intimidated, but others were rank and file police officers disgusted by the greed and criminality of so many of their peers.
The tragedy is that 40 years on, honest policemen in a similar position would fear arrest and imprisonment for even approaching a journalist without permission, despite the clear public interest in their doing so.
The police appear to be retreating into a bunker of secrecy and paranoia where all news must be ‘managed’ and freedom of information is considered a threat. On its website — alongside some vacuous rubbish about ‘declaring total war on crime’ — the Met claims to be committed to carrying out its duties with ‘humility’ and ‘transparency’.
Could anything be further from the truth? With its constant leak inquiries, harassment of whistleblowers and journalists, and scandalous misuse of terror legislation to tap the phone records and emails of ordinary citizens, the Met is probably more authoritarian and opaque than at any time in modern history. This culture comes directly from the top.
Being Commissioner of the Met has long been the most difficult job in policing, but there have been some good ones. Robert Mark, the Normandy veteran who cleaned out the Yard’s Augean stables in the 1970s; Ken Newman, a steely, austere man who served in Palestine during the emergency and headed the Royal Ulster Constabulary before re-organising the Met into a modern force; and the thoughtful Paul Condon, whose tenure came to a turbulent end with the Stephen Lawrence inquiry but who was arguably the cleverest of the lot. Each had his strengths and weaknesses but they all knew that a free, well-informed press was a cornerstone of policing in a democracy. Informal contact was generally encouraged, and in more than ten years as a crime correspondent in the 1980s and 1990s, I don’t recall a single leak inquiry or junior officer being disciplined for passing information to newspapers in good faith.
These men had respect for the office of constable — not least because they had all spent years on the front line before rising through the ranks. And they believed that part of their duty of accountability was to keep the public properly informed of what they were doing and why.
The present generation of police chiefs come from a very different breed. Fast-tracked and homogenised from an early stage, they can be difficult to tell apart. Often laden with degrees in law, business and ‘criminology’ accumulated during their police careers, they are more managers than police officers — managers of budgets, managers of public relations and, most importantly, managers of risk to their own careers. They speak in the obscure, vapid jargon of stakeholder engagement, paradigm shifts and proactivity. So much for transparency.
The present Met chief, Bernard Hogan-Howe, is of this ilk. He may develop into a great commissioner but the signs so far have not been promising. He has a pet theory which he calls ‘total policing’ (apparently based on the ‘total football’ played by Holland in the 1970s). It’s mainly harmless drivel about coppers having to play in all positions. But it contains an extremely sinister subtext. Explaining the philosophy a few years ago, he said it meant that ‘no legal tactic is out of bounds’ in the investigation of crime. Reasonable enough, one might think at first glance, but the problem with this catchy little mantra is that it takes no account of proportionality.
One of Hogan-Howe’s first moves after arriving at the Met was to use the Official Secrets Act to try to compel a Guardian journalist to reveal the source of a story about celebrity phone hacking. The Official Secrets Act is meant principally to be used to trap spies, traitors and those who threaten the defence of the realm — not reporters going about their legitimate business. This was a disproportionate and oppressive use of the law.
Similarly, legislation designed to combat terrorism and serious crime, such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, is used with alarming frequency by Hogan-Howe and other police chiefs to snoop on the internet and phone records of law-abiding citizens. This is the tactic of the police state. Not so much total policing as totalitarian policing.
Naturally, the ‘total policeman’ also favours more armed officers on routine duties, more Tasers and the mainland deployment of water cannon to disperse rioters, despite the fact that its use in Northern Ireland tended to inflame tensions rather than cool them. He also favours police officers being taken off the electoral roll and not wearing their uniforms on the way to and from duty shifts.The rise in Islamist terrorism has increased the threat level for soldiers and the police and sensible measures must be taken to combat that. But just as great a threat was posed over 30 years by the Provisional IRA and its offshoots without panic reactions. Hogan-Howe appears to be taking the police away from being a service and back towards being a coercive force. This is starkly demonstrated by the pursuit of journalists in the wake of the baleful Leveson inquiry. It has been driven to the point of absurdity, with up to 200 officers involved at one time and dozens of hapless hacks put before the courts, some on the flimsiest of charges.
All this has wider implications for the integrity of the police. One of the consequences of a heavy-handed police leadership stretching the law and using their power to bully and intimidate is that rank and file officers are encouraged to think they can do the same. Once ordinary officers start abusing power, a culture of semi-criminal behaviour becomes normal and whistleblowers are treated not as honourable but as traitors.
Judging from the recent reports, this may already be happening to an alarming degree around the country. The lessons of history suggest that if police chiefs are serious about neutralising the threat of corruption, they will need the help and support of the press. They will only get it if they start talking to journalists — instead of looking for reasons to arrest them.