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
Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia