Since she took on the role of commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 2017, Cressida Dick has endured a succession of crises, and the latest is worse than most. The kidnap, rape and murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, a serving Met police officer, is a disgrace and a humiliation, both for Dick and for her police force. The Met’s reputation was worsened by the shambolic policing of the vigil held for Everard in south London in March, and by the absurd recent statements advising women to “wave down a bus” if stopped by a police officer they do not trust.
The Met is facing accusations of institutional misogyny, and the calls for radical action that critics have been making for some time have grown markedly stronger. Safeguarding procedures can always be strengthened, just as they were after the Harold Shipman and Baby P cases; Priti Patel announced on 5 October that there will be a public inquiry into the “systematic failures” that allowed Couzens to remain a police officer after incidents that now appear to foreshadow Everard’s murder. But doing so will not make the Met’s crisis go away, because the larger crisis in policing existed long before Couzens committed his dreadful crimes – in fact, it was brewing even before he was born.
“The function of policing is essentially to regulate and protect the social order, using legitimate force if necessary,” wrote the criminologist Robert Reiner in a now 30-year-old paper on the precipitous fall in public respect for the police since the mid-20th century. Although the police maintain a fairly high level of public support – interestingly, the demographic with most confidence in their local police is Asian women – they have lost the faith of a particularly powerful group, what Reiner refers to as “the chattering classes”.
This souring of the relationship between the opinion-forming elites and the police has formed part of the historical phenomenon that Ralph Miliband termed “de-subordination”: the decline in traditional patterns of unquestioning acceptance of authority. The police and their work remain fascinating – note the many films, TV dramas and novels with police protagonists – but they are no longer considered legitimate objects of deference.
The process of de-subordination has occurred across much of the Western world. The United States, France, Australia and Canada are all in the midst of conflicts over the conduct of their police forces, despite significant variation in how these forces operate. While misconduct demands punishment, and there will always be scope for reform, the problems besetting these societies go much deeper than any particular instances of police malpractice.
The function of policing is to protect the social order, so when we find ourselves in political tumult, and the preferred form of social order is contested, it shouldn’t surprise us that the police are caught in the crossfire. They are confronted with a range of social phenomena that don’t sit comfortably with what the American political writer Wesley Yang refers to as “successor ideology”.
This is the ideology that has emerged triumphant out of the post-1960s cultural revolution and is now riding high in universities, NGOs and much of the media. Successor ideology prizes egalitarianism, pacifism and gender equality, none of which the police can provide, given the nature of their task. Patterns of offending are not and never have been egalitarian, since they vary significantly according to sex, race, age and class.
One can call to “defund the police” but there will always be instances when force is required, and social workers, for example, cannot legitimately use force – only the police can. A pacifist police force is an oxymoron since the police must use “legitimate force” to carry out their role. Most police officers are male, and seem likely to remain so, given that the people they arrest are also mostly male, and almost all men are stronger than almost all women.
My guess is that the recent focus on recruiting graduates into this traditionally blue-collar profession is at least partly motivated by the hope that media commentators might be softer on a police force that is more like them and shares their values; graduates are more likely than non-graduates to have absorbed the commitment to successor ideology that prevails in universities. More than a third of top journalists went to Oxbridge, whereas until recently 62 per cent of police recruits didn’t have a degree. This strategy has been combined with sometimes cringeworthy efforts to make the police look superficially more progressive, such as the rainbows and stars daubed on some police cars, apparently in a display of inclusivity.
I doubt that any of this will soothe the fiercest critics of Cressida Dick. Senior police are attempting a corporate makeover of a profession that is fundamentally different from any other because its function is to maintain social order, using violence when necessary. Those who present an alternative vision of social order are not likely to be fooled by a few rainbows and stars.
There have been similarly appalling cases in public institutions of comparable stature – including NHS general practice and the Shipman case – but the outcry the Everard tragedy has caused is unique. This inconsistency of response demonstrates that, with enough public trust, an institution can withstand a single horrific case. The Met is foundering because its status was in tatters long before the terrible murder of Sarah Everard.
This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places