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.

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Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.