When I worked in administration in a medical office in my early twenties, there was once a sweep of our computers (or at least the threat of one) following some minor communication catastrophe or other. I dreaded that it would be revealed that on Fridays, over the intranet messenger service, my colleagues and I would sometimes joke about how much we were dying to clock off, and how mentally checked out we were. I was concerned that this flippancy (which, to be honest, was mostly bravado, cloaking my swotty jobsworth attitude) would be offensive to my seniors, make me look foolish and unprofessional, and would convey indifference to the people we provided services to.
That’s how I felt at 22, in a temp job which I had no ambitions for and which wasn’t public facing. I imagine most people can relate to this feeling of anxiety to maintain professional standards even while communicating casually to colleagues. All of which is to say that the sexist, racist, ableist, Islamophobic messages sent between officers of the Met that have emerged this week are striking not only on the literal level of their (deeply disturbing) content. They reveal a grossly overconfident and entitled attitude toward the workplace. Sadly for us, that workplace is one supposedly central to maintaining public safety.
The messages emerged from a damning Independent Office for Police Conduct report into the culture of misogyny and racism at the Met, and show, among other things, an officer bragging about hitting his girlfriend, an officer telling a female colleague he would happily rape her, and jokes about killing black children. They were sent in a group consisting of 19 officers mostly based in Charing Cross Station. The Met has denied that the messages represent any substantive organisation-wide issue, and is again maintaining its tried-and-tested “few bad apples” approach.
[See also: The Met’s toxic subcultures are no accident]
This approach made slightly more sense when it came to Wayne Couzens, the Met officer who abducted and murdered Sarah Everard: as far as we know, he is the only British police officer to have recently murdered an unknown woman for his own sadistic pleasure. (Though a startling 15 other women have been murdered by police officers since 2009, they were all intimate partners or, in one instance, the mother of the officer in question.) But I and many others saw Couzens’s behaviour as something inextricably linked to his policing, in so far as he abused his power as an officer to detain Everard, and his arrogance was an extension of the total omnipotence the police are bestowed. Even so, it was materially true that few policemen commit such striking and sensational crimes as that one, because so few people do at all.
But it is laughable to suggest the Charing Cross group are not reflective of the increasing rot that has come to characterise the Met. Nineteen men, mostly based in a single station. That is not a negligible presence. In the timeframe these messages were sent, 2016-18, how many women entered that station, unaware of the sort of men they were engaging with, men who revel in cruelty against women instead of working to stop it?
Apparently, and unsurprisingly, some of the officers defended their words as “banter”, that trusted catch-all that has been used since time immemorial to cover up genuine hatred. The “banter” defence, just like the “bad apples” defence, is a deliberate attempt to strip these communications of their broader meaning. Insisting that hate speech is “just banter” means, in essence, that it is beyond criticism and has no actual content: the words exist only to shock for comic effect; they mean nothing beyond this, they suggest nothing about the speaker and have no impact on those around them. The proponents of banter assume the position of purist comedy aesthetes: people for whom the love of craft is so strong, the dedication to their art so total, that we must let the chips fall where they may. All of this might make a bit more sense if the jokes weren’t the same tired formatted rubbish we have all been hearing since our playground days.
One of the messages went like this: “Getting a woman into bed is like spreading butter. It can be done with a bit of effort using a credit card, but it’s quicker and easier just to use a knife.” I’ve heard stuff like this my whole life – along with all the other “edgy”, sub-South Park rape and paedophilia gags – so I receive it largely as embarrassingly juvenile nonsense rather than alarmingly offensive. But does this mean that the joke has no meaning? Absolutely not. The joke itself may be so stupid as to be void of intellectual substance, but the targets of the humour are clearly not random. The banter defence only works until you bother to ask why the humiliated target of each joke is a woman, or a person who isn’t white like the teller. Of course it is those demographics who are the targets of these jokes; of course it is the police who are the ones deriding them.
Step back for a moment and consider, in the grand scope of human history, who has tended to be at the hard end of oppressive controls, whose attempts at autonomy have been quashed systemically, and the answer will be women and ethnic minorities. The police are handed unequivocal and total power over society, they are told to reinforce the status quo. Can we be surprised they err in this direction? Can we honestly say we expect it to change now that a few of these men have been fired or disciplined?
The wearying thing about disgusting incidents like this – which remind us that the people who have automatic control over us view us as less than human, especially galling when you see how incredibly stupid they are themselves – is that there is never a resolution. Firing these guys changes nothing: it will either serve to further embitter their like-minded colleagues, or teach them to use a better encrypted messaging service. It is amazing the Met is still denying that a culture of sexism exists within it, but even if it did acknowledge the truth, what would change? Acknowledging a culture of anything, in any organisation, often ends up as self-serving corporate speak – which, at best, facilitates some useless two-hour-long training sessions on how to be a less egregious human being, which are endured and then ignored.
The sad reality is that these problems will only change when the general ethos of policing does. As things stand, officers are essentially taught from the start that they are better than the people they see all around them. They are bestowed with extraordinary powers (and the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, now in its final stages, will extend their powers even further) and unearned moral authority. Are we supposed to be surprised when that authority is not doled out fairly and benignly? Until policing is reconfigured at its roots as a community-serving and community-led endeavour, nothing will change.
[See also: The Met can’t be reformed. It must be abolished]
This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War