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19 April 2012updated 20 Apr 2012 4:20am

More sinister than a bobby on the beat

Lack of police accountability sees the institution which upholds the law virtually exempt from it.

By Ellie Mae O'Hagan

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.”

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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.