More sinister than a bobby on the beat

Lack of police accountability sees the institution which upholds the law virtually exempt from it.

Here’s a fun little anecdote. When the Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829, its first ever officer, whose badge number was 1, was sacked after four hours for being drunk on the job. It was characteristic of how police officers were viewed at the time: a bunch of unruly bullies hired to do the government’s dirty work. 

So in a week that has seen the trial of Alfie Meadows, an ever-deepening race row, and the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, you’d be forgiven for thinking that little has changed. It’s hard to read the news without piecing together an image of a police force stubbornly refusing to take responsibility for its actions; not just in isolated incidences but systemically, and over decades. Professionals I’ve spoken to that consistently deal with the police are remarkably candid about the police’s lack of accountability. The solicitor Raj Chada, whose practice Hodge Jones & Allen has represented numerous protesters over the last couple of years, was frank when he told me, "the police are completely unaccountable. None of the methods used to hold them to account work. They’re the last totally unreformed public service."

It would be apposite to bring up the IPCC at this point: a supposedly independent body founded to "increase public confidence in the police complaints system in England and Wales." But half of the IPCC’s board of directors is made up of former police officers; its Chief Executive is a former probation officer. It’s not unreasonable, then, to view the police force as essentially self-regulating, or at least monitored by a body inclined to empathise with officers. 

After the failures of the markets and the press to self-regulate, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why the IPCC has been allowed to continue as it is? British society values its police force highly - we enshrine that value in law - and yet the only official mechanism of accountability we use is unsettlingly reminiscent of a model which has been roundly discredited elsewhere. I have to question the priorities of a society which deems it so heinous to assault a police officer that the offence requires an entire law of its own, yet offers only a flimsy recourse for anyone police officers may have assaulted. In the police, we seem to have created a topsy-turvy idea of public service, where it is the public who are accountable to the servants.

In February I spoke to Nogah Ofer, a solicitor who worked on the biggest police corruption case in British history. Speaking in a personal capacity, she offered a familiar explanation as to why the police seem so unaccountable: "there is a gut feeling that the establishment protects its own. The system applies a different standard to police officers – that’s the pattern we’ve seen."

Ofer’s opinion articulates a suspicion long held by many whose experience of the police is more sinister than a local bobby on the beat. But whatever the reason for an unaccountable police force, the problem remains: in our attempts to create an institution which upholds the law, we have apparently created an institution which is virtually exempt from it.

This is a problem which goes beyond debates about public trust and positive relationships. This is about a malignancy in our society. The laws we have made for public good are rendered meaningless if their enforcers break them at liberty. It’s time our society accepted that the police force cannot hold itself to account, and did something about it. It shouldn’t take another scandal, bogus trial or Hillsborough to make us realise that a police force that acts with total impunity makes us all a little less civilised.

Photo: Getty Images
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war