The men, both serving Met officers at the time of their offence, had been part of a WhatsApp group in which they and their colleagues shared shockingly racist and misogynistic “banter”. They fantasised about assaulting victims of domestic abuse and raping a female colleague. They joked about tasering the disabled. And then one member of this group of Met policemen went on to kidnap, rape and murder a young woman named Sarah Everard.
I thought of these men when I heard that Rishi Sunak wants to “stamp out ‘woke’ policing”. The new Prime Minister appears to have noticed that Britain faces a law and order crisis – crime is at a 20-year high and less than 6 per cent of offences are leading to a charge – and has decided that the problem is “wokeness”. The Telegraph reports that he wants to emulate the “anti-woke” chief of Greater Manchester Police, Stephen Watson, who has managed to lead the force out of special measures in 18 months.
According to the Times, Watson achieved this success with a “back to basics” approach. He told officers to iron their uniforms and polish their boots, and instructed them not to ignore “low-level” crimes such as burglary and shoplifting. Response times have been reduced under his leadership and arrests have soared.
Where does the idea of “wokeness” fit in? Watson is reported to have dismissed the idea of “taking the knee” (in solidarity with Black Lives Matter activists) and railed against “virtue-signalling police officers” who put “rainbows on their epaulettes”, saying the public would “rather they locked up burglars”. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it was kneeling or rainbow epaulettes that prevented officers from arresting burglars. In fact, if you think about it for more than five seconds, it’s hard to see how those things are connected at all. It’s far more likely that the reversal in Greater Manchester Police’s fortunes was down to having a decent manager who cared about outcomes and refused to let officers coast by without doing their jobs properly any longer.
There is, it’s true, a point to be made about police priorities and which offences get investigated. During the Conservative leadership campaign over the summer, Sunak said “police forces must be fully focused on fighting actual crime in people’s neighbourhoods, and not policing bad jokes on Twitter”. Watson, too, referred to the public perception that officers were “far too busy to be able to do the things that you want us to do”. The Telegraph attempts to bring these threads together, reporting that “forces have been criticised for sending officers to arrest social media users for offensive posts”, and citing one incident in which the Twitter account of Sussex Police “defended a legally male transgender sex offender by declaring it would not ‘tolerate any hateful comments about gender’”.
However, it’s clutching at straws to suggest “woke” priorities are what’s to blame for the dismal rates of police action when there’s a much more obvious factor: money. Between 2010 and 2019, central government funding for police decreased by 30 per cent. In that time, police numbers fell by 20,600 – a reduction of 14 per cent. In 2019 Boris Johnson pledged to recruit 20,000 new officers by 2023, but that is simply reversing the shortfall and besides, it takes time to train police to an acceptable standard.
And that’s to say nothing of the crisis in the courts system, which after 12 years of mismanagement and underfunding by a Conservative government has now reached breaking point. There is a backlog of 60,000 Crown Court cases, with defendants and victims waiting months or even years for their cases to be heard. With the entire criminal justice system under such immense strain, it is no surprise that so few offences are making it to trial.
None of this, of course, is helpful to Sunak. He can hardly argue that crime is on the rise because governments he has supported and served in let the crisis spiral out of control – it’s much easier to blame “wokeness”. But doing so is not just a distraction: it is actively counterproductive if the aim is keeping people safe.
Whether Sunak and the Tories admit it or not, the reality is that there are quite a few police officers who could do with being a little more “woke”. The vast majority of police may be professional, dedicated public servants, but the frequency with which scandals emerge shows that police culture often fails at serving minority or vulnerable communities.
I’d like to ask the “anti-woke” brigade, for example, what they made of Louise Casey’s report into the Met last month, which found hundreds of officers had been getting away with gender and racial discrimination because the force’s misconduct system was full of “systemic bias”. Allegations of sexual harassment, misogyny, racism and homophobia (that is, the kind of offenses a more “woke” agenda aims to reduce) were badly mishandled; individuals were allowed to remain in the force even after multiple misconduct allegations, presumably because those in power didn’t take the incidents seriously.
This sort of thing matters – both in terms of public perceptions and in the ability of the police to do their jobs. Get it wrong and the outcomes can be horrific. It matters that the police watchdog is currently investigating whether race was a factor in the killing of Chris Kaba, a black man, by officers earlier this year. It matters that an Independent Office for Police Conduct report has found that discriminatory attitudes played a part in the failures of the Stephen Port serial killer case: if the officers investigating the death of a young gay man in London in 2014 had held less homophobic views, they might have caught the serial killer before he murdered three more men. It matters that 80 per cent of UK police accused of domestic abuse kept their jobs. Caring about these things isn’t “virtue signalling”, as Watson put it – it’s a crucial aspect of making policing fit for purpose.
It’s all very well to ridicule attempts to make the police more “woke” – until revelations surface of a WhatsApp group in which officers joke about raping the women they’re meant to be protecting. A more “woke” police culture might have prevented that. It might have weeded out the officers who felt it appropriate to take lurid photos of two murdered black women and swap sickening jokes about the victims with colleagues. It might have ensured that red flags raised about Wayne Couzens – nicknamed “the rapist” by his fellow officers – were taken seriously enough for him to be kicked out of the force before he had the chance to murder Everard.
I don’t expect Sunak to acknowledge any of that. In the absence of proper funding from successive Conservative governments, policing has become yet another culture war – and the rhetoric of “anti-wokeism” is the only sword available. But if I was given five minutes with the Prime Minister, I’d ask him if he thinks the recent examples of misogyny, racism and toxic bigotry we’ve seen among those who are paid by the taxpayer to keep us safe are acceptable.
And if the answer is no, I’d gently suggest that maybe our police forces need more wokeism, not less.