A Metropolitan Police officer, known to his colleagues as “the rapist”, raped and murdered a young woman using his police ID for cover. When women took to the streets to protest this, officers from the force pinned some of them violently to the ground. Then, two Metropolitan Police officers were jailed for taking photographs of female murder victims and sharing them with a WhatsApp group of 41 colleagues.
Now, in the latest sickening example of organised racism and misogyny, we have the Charing Cross revelations. The WhatsApp messages speak for themselves: “I would happily rape you,” a male officer messaged a female officer. “Knock a bird about and she will love you,” one advised another.
One officer boasted “My dad kidnapped some African children and used them to make dog food”, while another spoke of doing “some uniform or plain clothes work on Somalian rats”, adding “I battered one the other day… weighed less than [a fellow police officer].” As for anyone tempted to report this behaviour to their superiors, one wrote: “There’s a few of those grassing c***s I would like to knife.”
We are now in the latest cycle of reports, recommendations and reforms within the Met. It’s not that nothing ever changes: it’s just that regulating the Met has become a multi-decade game of whack-a-mole, whereby the underlying problem of police subculture is never addressed.
In each cycle a mole is whacked: Operation Countryman in the 1970s revealed “historically and currently endemic” collaboration with gangsters; the 1999 Macpherson Report identified institutional racism; the “Learning report” from the Charing Cross investigation (known as Operation Hotton) contains numerous worthy proposals on bullying and harassment.
But few want to talk about a fact that has been obvious to sociologists since 1970: that all policing generates an internal subculture, and that unless it is scrutinised and managed, it will become as racist, misogynistic and reactionary as it did in Charing Cross. The word “culture” appears everywhere in the Operation Hotton report – conceived as a set of aberrant attitudes and behaviours that can be remedied with guidelines – but the sociological concept of police “subculture” is nowhere acknowledged. The battle, for senior management, politicians and the public, is to recognise the existence of a subculture, and to reform it by exposing it to public scrutiny.
The official culture of all police forces rests on the claim that they are, as the sociologist Robert Reiner put it, “rule-bound, legalistic, bureaucratic organisations, in which top-down policies prevailed through a quasi-militaristic rank hierarchy and strict discipline code”. But in practice – to invert Reiner’s terms – police forces (or their sub-units) are often rule-breaking, criminal, chaotic organisations in which bottom-up cultural practices overwhelm the command structure, and where rival disciplinary codes are enforced through the sorts of practices discovered in Operation Hotton: bullying, banter, a private language and a rival network to the official comms grid.
And that is because policing is not some kind of “neutral application of the law”. It is about maintaining order, property rights and hierarchy in a society riven by class, race, gender and numerous other conflicts. When Charing Cross police officers complained that the area around London’s Leicester Square was “tense, many members of the public were highly intoxicated, and aggression and violence were commonplace”, they might have been describing a microcosm of capitalism.
The low-growth, highly unequal, misogynistic and racist capitalism we live in has produced the world of drunks, rapists, street-dwellers, drink-spikers, pickpockets, moped muggers, unlicensed drivers, drug dealers, people traffickers and the rest, which the Charing Cross unit found so difficult to police. Their subculture of rape jokes, racist insults and the glorification of domestic violence appears in part to be a strategy adopted to stay sane in this world of continuous conflict.
To identify some of the sources of this subculture is not to excuse it, but it is a starting point to reforming it. The Met on its own cannot change what happens in London’s West End at night. But it can recruit, train and develop officers who see themselves as products of, and members of, the society they are trying to police, not an armed, external occupation force.
To do this, you would have to start not just with a tighter disciplinary code. You would have to start from the Met’s real history. For Londoners, it was never simply a body that policed “by consent”. It was designed as the unaccountable arm of the British state, for policing the capital and suppressing dissent, and even now is only partially under democratic control.
Freed from scrutiny and control, the Met evolved, fairly quickly after the Second World War, a notorious and persistently symbiotic relationship with organised crime. Then it became an occupation force in black and Asian areas. And, from the 1960s onwards, it became a tool of national government for suppressing, surveilling and infiltrating militant trade unionism and left-wing dissent.
The subculture that developed at Charing Cross, then, was a product of the Met’s history of increasing detachment from civil society, plus – here’s the sharp end of the problem – the failure of its current leadership. Cressida Dick should have gone long ago. She’s overseen a litany of operational failures and reputational disasters. But the Met needs more than a fresh face. It needs total, real-time transparency and accountability – not just at the level of the Greater London Authority, but to the councils, communities and neighbourhoods that actually make up London.
We need to detach the policing of London from the national policing of terrorism and serious crime. We need to end – publicly and finally – all spy cop operations against non-terrorist organisations. If we end up with an FBI-style serious crime and anti-terror unit at a national level, including a French GIGN-style national armed response unit, for me that’s become a price worth paying to normalise the Met.
Subcultures flourish where management tolerates a kind of “organised darkness” about reality. Reforming a subculture means forming and empowering a network of grassroots police officers who want to promote change; an aggressive cull of the bad guys (more aggressive than the two dismissals at Charing Cross); carrot-and-stick policies to encourage whistleblowers; 50:50 male-female recruitment policies; forcing officers to use only police-issued phones, with unencrypted, non-deletable messaging services. But, ultimately, it’s a battle for hearts and minds. The challenge is not to suppress subcultures from above, but to flush the toxic ones out by promoting progressive and tolerant ones from below.
[See also: Is the Met incompetent or does it just not care?]