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13 September 2022

How can the new Met commissioner possibly hope to restore trust?

Mark Rowley faces familiar questions over the shooting of an unarmed black man and the treatment of anti-royal protesters.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Mark Rowley took over as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police on Monday 12 September. The former assistant commissioner succeeds Cressida Dick, whose time leading London’s police was fraught with controversy. She resigned in February after losing the confidence of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London.

The Met was put into “special measures” in June, meaning greater scrutiny from the policing watchdog, after a series of grave failings. From the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer who had been accused of indecent exposure, to the mockery of the bodies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, who had been stabbed to death, to the strip-search of Child Q, the Met was deemed to have lost public trust. The inspectorate’s report on why the Met was put in special measures is expected to be published soon.

The new commissioner has pledged “more trust, less crime and high standards”. Yet the first of those three promises is undermined by the death of Chris Kaba. The 24-year-old, who was to become a father, was shot dead by a firearms officer through his windscreen in Streatham, south London, on 5 September, after the police boxed in his car. Kaba, who was black, was unarmed and no gun was found at the scene. His family has accused the force of racism and called for the officer who shot him to be immediately suspended while being investigated.

For seven days the Met refused to confirm whether its officer – who is being investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct for homicide – would be suspended. As late as 9 September its line was that the officer had not been subjected to “restricted duties or suspension”. Some MPs backed the family’s demands. It took until 12 September, a week after the shooting, for the officer to be suspended.

From Christopher Alder to Rashan Charles, many black men in particular have died at the hands of British police officers in the decades since 1998, the year the Met was found to be “institutionally racist” over its investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Kaba’s case grimly echoes in some ways that of Mark Duggan, 29, who was shot dead by police after they stopped his car in Tottenham, north London, in 2011 – it was Duggan’s death that sparked the London riots that summer.

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Trust in the Met is also being tested by the treatment of peaceful protestors. Rowley, who was the first senior police officer to pledge his allegiance to Charles III when sworn into his new job, has described policing the Queen’s funeral as a “massive challenge”. Already his officers appear to be making mistakes. A whole mob of them were caught on camera moving on an individual protester holding a tiny sign reading “Not my king” outside the Palace of Westminster. The incident took place on a strip of pavement where protesters for different causes gather every day and are occasionally asked to stand aside for cars. Another protester on Parliament Square, who says he was holding a blank sign, has also posted footage of a confrontational officer asking for his details.

Policing of other protests in recent years has been poorly judged – including the physical restraint and arrests of women attending Everard’s vigil last year, and heavy-handed handling of Extinction Rebellion climate activism in 2019.

As for Rowley’s promise of “less crime” (hardly a bold promise for the biggest police force in the country), there are concerns within the force that officers are unable to investigate and solve low-level offences. Despite calls from politicians, including Liz Truss, the Prime Minister, for police to get “back to basics”, crime detection and charge rates have fallen over the past five years nationally. Burglaries, thefts and antisocial behaviour go largely unsolved – a legacy, police chiefs argue, of a decade of public sector cuts.

There is a fear in the Met that this could encourage more serious criminality, undermining the “broken windows theory”, popularised by the New York City police commissioner William Bratton in the Nineties, which suggests that following up little problems like smashed windows stops people being emboldened to commit more serious offences.

At the heart of what Rowley sees as the Met’s “mission”, according to reports, is the concept of “policing by consent” proposed by Robert Peel, the Victorian prime minister and founder of modern policing. The idea is that the legitimacy of the police, and its ability to maintain order, derives from public support rather than physical force.

Celebrating Peel’s values has become a cliché among police chiefs in modern Britain, however. The reality, for the Met in particular, has long felt like the opposite, particularly for black Londoners. Ian Blair, who was Met commissioner during the New Labour era, told me last year that there’s a feeling among more modern police thinkers “that the concept of ‘policing by consent’ is now beginning to be a rather meaningless comment”.

Instead some policing academics, such as the Cambridge University professor Justice Tankebe, are thinking more about how to establish “police legitimacy in politically contentious times”, in Blair’s words. Unless Rowley can achieve that, Londoners will be stuck with the same old Met.

[See also: Free speech means supporting the right to criticise the monarchy]

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