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  1. The Weekend Report
16 September 2023

“A slow-motion emergency”: inside Britain’s failing police forces

Incompetent, corrupt, outdated: policing needs revolution not reform.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Strip-lit by the glow of the Britannia fish-and-chip shop, eight officers huddle outside the Barkantine Estate on the Isle of Dogs. It is a quiet Monday at dusk, the sun dropping behind the high-rises that overlook London’s former docks. A group of teenagers gather near the entrance to the closest 22-storey block, eyeing the police opposite.

The officers – some in high-vis jackets, others in the Metropolitan Police uniform of black vest and helmet, a couple in plain clothes – eye them back. A cheerful officer in a woolly hat tells me that the aim is to appear available, as part of a city-wide push to increase police visibility. “We’re trying to reach groups we don’t usually reach, the people who don’t report crime, to see what we’re missing.”

His colleagues are less convinced. When a passer-by tells the officer some youths have been throwing chips at shop windows, they reluctantly walk over to the teenagers. After a polite conversation, the kids peel off, some on Lime bikes, others on foot. One officer who had hung back shrugs: what had they proved? “Our presence might move some people on,” he says. “But that isn’t solving anything.”

It certainly doesn’t appear to be. The most recent Home Office data, for the period April 2022 to April 2023, showed that nearly 95 per cent of crimes in England and Wales now go unsolved. Antisocial behaviour is up (by nearly 30 per cent between 2015 and 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics), and trust in policing has more than halved (from 67 per cent last year to just 31 per cent, according to Ipsos), following a series of high-profile scandals and reports. These include the Louise Casey review into the Metropolitan Police, which in March concluded that Britain’s largest force was institutionally racist, misogynist and homophobic; gross failures in the investigations into the serial killer Stephen Port and the death of the private investigator Daniel Morgan; and the vetting failures surrounding Met officers and serial offenders David Carrick and Wayne Couzens. Last week, on 14 September, the Met apologised and paid damages to two women arrested at a vigil for Sarah Everard in March 2021.

But police failures spread far beyond the Met. Between October 2021 and April 2022, the most recently recorded six-month period, more than 1,500 police officers were accused of violence against women in England and Wales. A separate, more recent investigation from May 2022 to May 2023 found that 1,124 police officers and staff were accused of domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape or abuse of position. In April earlier this year, more than 80 officers in Police Scotland were being investigated over allegations of sexual misconduct and racism. In July, the Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham ordered a review into allegations that Greater Manchester Police officers unjustifiably strip-searched three women in 2021, a period when it was in special measures (from December 2020 to October 2022).

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Six English police forces, including the Met, are currently in special measures. In the inspectorate’s stark language, they are failing at the very basics: Wiltshire Police “does not adequately protect those who are vulnerable from harm”; Gloucestershire Constabulary “needs to make sure that crimes are investigated effectively”; in Cleveland, the “inappropriate behaviour” of senior leaders “is so profound that it is affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of the force”.

When did policing in Britain become so broken, and who is to blame? In recent months, the New Statesman has spoken to dozens of people close to the front line, including serving and former officers, police chiefs, politicians and criminologists. They disagree on much but concur on one thing: that neither a change in leadership, nor a culling of the ranks – a mass “bad-apple” composting – would solve its problems. Instead, they argue for something more radical: a complete reimagining of how we are policed, and of what the police are for.

In autumn 2019, against a backdrop of West Yorkshire police officers squinting into the September sun, Boris Johnson promised to deliver 20,000 new recruits if elected prime minister. In April this year, Rishi Sunak announced that this target had been met, and called Keir Starmer “Sir Softy” at Prime Minister’s Questions. The Labour Party was quick to respond, reminding the electorate that it was Conservative governments who had, since 2010, cut 20,600 officers: they had merely corrected a problem of their own making. Starmer called again for that most rehearsed of clichés, “more bobbies on the beat”.

This point-scoring goes to the heart of the issue. Over the years, a my-sentence-is-longer-than-your-sentence arms race between the government and the opposition has turned policing into a political football. All Starmer and Sunak are promising, really, is more of the same. This has prevented the deep, long-term thinking about what a 21st-century police force should be.

For Steve Hartshorn, the chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents 135,000 officers, there are constantly missed opportunities. “The only time the public is asked to engage is when a political party says, ‘We want to be the party of law and order, vote for us.’ Before an election, we have the debate, and then it falls away. That should change.”

In London, this stand-off is most evident when the mayor, who is also the police and crime commissioner for the city, is in political opposition to the home secretary. In 2022, Sadiq Khan and Priti Patel clashed over the fate of the then Met chief Cressida Dick. According to City Hall insiders, Khan wanted to oust her sooner, but was concerned about who the Tories would anoint in her place.

[See also: Ex-Met Police detective: “We made suspects bolder and braver”]

Ian Blair, the Met commissioner from 2005-08 – and the first to serve a London mayor and home secretary from opposing parties – reflected on this stasis when I first spoke to him in 2021. He recalled standing between his then masters, Boris Johnson and Jacqui Smith, as both claimed credit for the same policing initiative at an Underground station. “I began to think: ‘We’ve got politicians here who have very fixed ideas on either side, and we’ve got a public that’s not really being consulted.’ There was a play, wasn’t there? One Man, Two Guvnors.”

Diana Johnson, the Labour MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which is currently running an inquiry into policing priorities, tells me that politicians fail to take the long view. “They want something done yesterday, they don’t want to be told it’ll take five or ten years. And the mayor of London’s cycle is different from the MPs’ cycle – he’s on a faster timetable than the Home Secretary. There is a problem with the big policy concerns like policing getting buy-in across political parties. I don’t think parliament has ever looked at the current configuration of police forces, for example.”

Johnson and the committee’s inquiry is due to report in September, and has already heard from the current Met commissioner Mark Rowley, Louise Casey, ministers, civil servants, lawyers and others. Johnson says she has been struck by how much time “police officers are spending on what members of the public would regard as non-policing things. Where there isn’t, say, sufficient mental health support, the police step in – they’re the ones waiting in A&E for someone to be assessed.” After we spoke, the Met announced that, from November, it will no longer respond to mental health emergency calls. In August the Police Federation of England and Wales said forces were “stretched beyond human limits” after the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, announced that every theft would be investigated.

The fallout of the post-2008 crash austerity programme, introduced by David Cameron’s government, is perhaps most evident in policing and our crumbling courts system. “We’ve seen lots of organisations diminish or reduce, and yet the police – because they’re 24/7 – are always there to pick up where public services are not available,” says Johnson. One Met officer told me she and her colleagues “often spend an entire shift in A&E… We have defibrillators in the car but we never want to go to those jobs – we’re not paramedics.”

The officers I speak to want to catch criminals: the “real bad guys”. They bemoan the messy lives, from the homeless to the hoarders, that obstruct this noble mission. Many do all they can to avoid domestic violence call-outs. One former Met detective, Jess McDonald, who served in east London from 2018-21, told me earlier this year that the phrase “classic crap rape” was used to dismiss assaults officers would rather not investigate (the charge rate for rape has dropped to 1.3 per cent of reports).

Matt Lloyd-Rose, a Met special constable between 2012-15, says that he had seen “real resistance to the more social, caring aspect of the role. The central frustration for a lot of officers is that, ultimately, they’re being sent out to deal with complex caring situations.” He calls these “slow-motion emergencies”. Others say the incentive was to increase your arrest count and stick people “in the bin” [in custody]. One Met officer complains about shifts with a colleague who is “only good for the touchy-feely stuff – great when we have a community event, but rubbish when we want to stop and search someone”.

Budget cuts are a large part of this story, but even Hartshorn, whose role is akin to a union leader representing rank-and-file officers, concedes his profession needs something more radical than money. “Policing is in a pretty dire state at the moment,” he admits. He calls instead for a more meaningful acknowledgement of a damaging culture. A Met officer of nearly 30 years, he was the first police leader to accept Louise Casey’s diagnosis of “institutional” racism, misogyny and homophobia – something Mark Rowley still pointedly resists.

“Most [officers] want to do an amazing job, and don’t hold the abhorrent views that a minority do,” Hartshorn explains. “But if there were a collective set of processes that disadvantaged people, and victims don’t feel listened to, well, why on Earth would we not want to fix it?”

He makes the case for a national conversation about 21st-century policing, reviewing everything from its military ranking system to the senior leadership exams, to the question of which crimes constitute a policing matter. “We need to ask the public, businesses and officers who do the job what they want. Do the public want us looking at some of the smaller items of crime, where someone might be five to six miles an hour over the speed limit on a motorway in cars that are inherently safer than they have ever been? Do they want us dealing with low levels of cannabis use, or should we be focusing on the high harm and risk crimes?”

[See also: What’s gone wrong with British policing?]

Hartshorn questions whether we need police and crime commissioners (PCCs), the controversial Cameron-era elected officials introduced in 2012 to make policing more accountable in England and Wales. Theresa May, the home secretary behind them, has admitted they have achieved mixed results. After a number of scandals involving commissioners (the former South Yorkshire incumbent initially refused to resign over the Rotherham grooming gangs), May said she feared she’d created “a monster”.

This April Suella Braverman called for police to be “politically impartial”, to put “common-sense policing” over “virtue signalling” and “taking partisan positions” – a favourite critique among Conservative ministers. Hartshorn points out that, by this logic, you have to ask if there is still a role for PCCs, the majority of whom are Conservative. “If you look at the percentage in England [and Wales], it’s 76 per cent: 30 out of 39 [commissioners] are Conservative.”

One rainy night I meet a female police officer outside Victoria Park, a vast green space in east London that I skirt on evening walks to a local gym class. We’re here for a “Walk & Talk”, an initiative launched by the Met last February that sends officers to patrol and discuss women’s safety with members of the public.

Along quiet residential roads, across a flyover and through a park, we follow a patchily lit route I often take into a neighbouring borough. One night in January a man jumped out at me here: I walked quickly away, and he laughed at my reaction. A few weeks later my boyfriend was surrounded by five masked bike thieves on the same route. He managed to get away, but our experiences have left us feeling differently about a journey we had made for years.

Having never worked in uniform, I find the reactions to the PC fascinating. Some stand straighter; others peer at me to ascertain my criminal status; a group smelling strongly of weed slink hastily away; a dog-walker stops to ask if she’d like to recruit his little westie as a drug sniffer. I also notice faces harden.

Engaged and polite, apparently happy to spend the evening getting drenched with me, my accompanying officer worries that women do not trust the police. When she speaks to them, she tries to balance safety advice with her wish to avoid victim-blaming. (I learn never to take my phone out or linger in a certain mugging hotspot, where sexual assault reports are rising.)

Because it is impossible to investigate all crime, the police must instead prioritise. “Once someone is murdered, because it becomes so high-profile, the budget becomes unlimited and you have teams of people,” Jess McDonald told me. “Whereas rape and domestic violence is so rife. The proactive priority isn’t there, but there are also not enough people to do the job.” The Casey review found rape-case evidence stuffed into broken freezers.

The prejudices of individual officers can inform these priorities. One recent victim of indecent exposure told me that the male officer she reported it to giggled and referred to the suspect’s penis as his “little fella”. Officers with racist views will over-enforce the law on black men. One former Greater Manchester police officer tells me that homophobic colleagues hated being called out to Canal Street, Manchester’s “gay village”. As a gay man himself, he says he would not feel safe calling the police now and that it felt like he was in a “cult”. “Now, if I see police officers coming towards me, I cross the road.” In the 2000s and 2010s, he had hidden the existence of his boyfriend from colleagues, and says he was subjected to homophobic slurs and labelled a “diversity” hire. After informally mentioning this to a superior, he believes he was punished with the worst shifts and a bigger administrative load.

Greater Manchester Police said last year, in a commitment to improving trust between it and minority communities, that “the vast majority of our staff carry out their duties in a fair and non-discriminatory way. However, we know we have some way to go to ensure that our diverse communities… feel that we deliver services fairly and equitably.”

Yet, publicly at least, police chiefs have long made the case for a more diverse workforce, with limited success. Of the 149,572 officers in post in England and Wales, 36 per cent are women, 8 per cent are from ethnic minorities, and 5 per cent are gay, according to figures shared in April. The push to recruit a more representative force is ongoing. One advert that pops up regularly in my social media feeds shows a female sergeant in her early thirties, around my age, saying she’s “grown in confidence massively” since joining the Met. Apparently, she has even persuaded her mother to join.

But across the country, the government’s recent recruitment drive has been so rushed that I hear of forces picking the “usual suspects”. One source involved in police training tells me that the constant headlines about police misogyny are even attracting like-minded young men: “A short-man syndrome type of person, people who were bullied and want power to take revenge.” Last year the main police watchdog, the IOPC, found that vetting failures had allowed “thousands” of predatory officers to join police forces across England and Wales.

Certainly vetting was more stringent in the past. “When I joined, we did 20 weeks at a residential training school,” says Paul Stephens, a former detective sergeant in north London murder squads who retired five years ago, having joined the Met in 1983, aged 18. “I even got a visit at home from the local police inspector. He came round to check my home life and speak to my parents.”

Today, you apply online and training has been slimmed down. “If you do have certain political leanings or behavioural issues, they’re not as obvious, perhaps not until you’re in and walking the beat, and it’s a bit late then,” Stephens adds. At the Met, an online interview is followed by a day of in-person fitness tests, a medical and two role-play exercises. The main changes made since the November 2022 IOPC report have been to check names against the national police database, and to re-vet officers who have had complaints made against them. Still, in May inspectors revealed that unsuitable people were still being recruited, including (without specifying which force) giving a firearms role to someone with links to organised crime, and hiring a recruit accused of domestic abuse by several former partners.

In the course of my reporting, it often felt that improving police diversity was offered in the absence of a better solution, as if it were up to women and minority groups to make the police more effective. Ian Blair tells me this year that he didn’t “know the answer” to regaining women’s trust, though he pointed out that 40 per cent of forces are now led by women chief constables, a dramatic shift. “The police service has just got to do its best. It’s really quite important to note how many women there are now, and secondly, how many very senior women there are. We just hope those role models will begin to improve the confidence other people have.”

When the Isle of Dogs darkens, it is just officers and teenagers, rough sleepers and night workers who share the shadows. As Matt Lloyd-Rose writes in his recent memoir, Into the Night: “When most people are indoors, police and teens are outside hoping something will happen – police in their fleeces, teens in their puffers. On uneventful nights, we become events for one another.”

This weary dance plays out across urban Britain every day, a faint echo of the original point of modern policing: disorder prevention. In 1829, when the Conservative home secretary Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police – a blueprint for other forces – the job of these new tail-coated, top-hatted watchmen was to prevent, not investigate, crime. In 19th-century Isle of Dogs, where a burgeoning urban working class was transforming its once-pastoral character, the new police would make themselves a visible presence as gambling and drinking spilled into public spaces.

The Peelian principle of “policing by consent” is the most-repeated tenet of modern policing. But perhaps its first principle – “to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment” – better illuminates the shortcomings of police work today.

Professor Katrin Hohl, a criminologist at City, University of London, explains: “The purpose of policing was ‘order maintenance’. It was to do surveillance of the street, to monitor public houses, monitor public life, and it wasn’t law enforcement. Law and order are almost contradictory terms. We say them in a sentence as if they go together, but in policing it doesn’t quite work like that.”

Hohl, who co-led Operation Soteria, a two-year project to improve rape investigations, believes that policing has not evolved fast enough. “It was set up by those who were making the rules at the time, so these were white, upper-class men: they designed a policing model that worked for them. It was not designed to respond to some of the things we find important now.” Much modern crime takes place in online spaces, far from the watchmen: fraud is now the UK’s most common offence. Hohl adds that the colonial roots of policing in England have cast minorities as a group to control, rather than protect: “It was baked-in racism from the beginning.”

As society has evolved, Hohl says, we have asked more of the police without addressing its essential structure. “We’ve bolted on more requirements: ‘Now you should also look at violence against women and girls,’ ‘Now you should be anti-racist.’” Her own research has shown that even citizens who are well served by the police feel let down. “If you don’t see it working well, even if it’s not affecting you directly, it will break your trust. Policing is a myth-making machine: it has to create this myth of effectiveness, which is reinforced in fiction about police. That has now broken. In the past, it was ‘deny, deny, deny’ problems, to keep the myth going. But words like ‘trust’ and ‘confidence’ are now zombie terms.”

[See also: Why should the Met Police get the benefit of the doubt?]

Two years ago, Ian Blair told me that “the concept of ‘policing by consent’ is now beginning to be a rather meaningless comment”. When I catch up with him this year, he elaborates. “There’s a lot of work being done on [rethinking] police legitimacy: that it should be the recognition by citizens of the moral rightness of the police’s claim to authority,” he says. “There are two components to it: that the rules are fair, and that the rules are fairly enforced.” What counts as “fair” should be a dialogue with the public, he adds.

The use and abuse of social media has been a significant factor in recent scandals, Blair argues. “I was [in] the first generation of senior police officers to face a 24-hour news agenda, but I never had to face anything on social media. And I think that has changed something not only in the public, but in the police service itself.”

When Blair joined the Met in 1974, it was a “pretty racist and sexist organisation”, he says. “But I can tell you that nobody would dare to say in the canteen the things that these small groups of officers have been reported as saying on WhatsApp. It’s as if [some officers] have found a hiding place where they can behave disgustingly.”

Misogyny in the Met, he says, is “possibly the hardest of all” the issues the police face. Does he have any advice for today’s leaders? “It’s big, but it’s not insurmountable. When I became commissioner, I set up a commission on the experience of working for the Met as a woman. We had about 5,000 women taking part, and there were no complaints about sexism. The issues were about maternity arrangements, job sharing and so on. The idea of being able to let people express themselves inside the organisation is really important.”

Establishing the sort of public conversation Blair and others argue for is an impossible ask of the police alone. It stretches far beyond their powers – into parliament, the criminal justice system and the public sphere. Numerous sources I speak to, including Steve Hartshorn, suggest a royal commission, the process behind the major reforms to the House of Lords in 2000. There hasn’t been one for policing since 1962, and calls for one have been dismissed by successive governments. “We keep getting told it will take too long and cost a lot of money. But it takes a long time if you keep ignoring it, and the cost will go up every year,” Hartshorn warns.

Other key services are subject to regular reviews. “The NHS has had a series of strategic reviews and changes, the Armed Forces get their strategic review – it’s an astonishing fact that this doesn’t happen for police,” says one former chief of a major English force. Political theatre has left little room for the radical, judge-led reckoning that is needed.

Diana Johnson believes there is “some merit” to a royal commission, “because the landscape has changed enormously in the last ten or 15 years. But of course, governments are always very reluctant to agree, because it can be seen as kicking it into the long grass.” They also fear what the verdict of such an intervention might be. Not quite to “defund the police”, the US-imported mantra of the protest left, but to “dilute the police”, at the least.

Johnson cites one scheme that gives police officers less, not more, of a role. Since January 2019, Humberside Police has partnered with its local mental health team, ambulance trust, hospitals and social services to redirect emergency calls to the best place. The result has been a large reduction in police deployments (rather than a scramble to beef them up, as politicians often yearn to do). Last November, Humberside was rated the best police force in the country.

Another proposal is to remodel the police as a multidisciplinary service, as Ian Blair tells me he had planned to do before leaving the Met. “How multi-competent does a police officer have to be?” he reflects. “One of the things we were beginning to work up was more of an NHS model, so that there were different professions inside the overall police bubble. It’s about making sure we use sworn police officers to do the things they’re really best at, with different sub-professions.” At present, recruits generally receive the same training, start off in uniform, and then move up the ranks into different specialisms. The NHS, meanwhile, is made up of staff from very different disciplines and backgrounds.

Britain’s obsession with the number of warranted officers is misplaced, in Blair’s view. “I think police services are going to have to adapt to having a much larger number of people who are not fully-sworn police officers, but who are recruited to deal with [modern challenges] like internet crime.”

Nobody would disagree that it is time for deep and lasting change. Everyone I speak to believes a majority of well-intentioned officers are trying their best. But we have become too used to following the same script: a repeated cycle of scandal, report and promises of reform.

As a nation, vast numbers of us tune in to watch the good cops prevail over the bad in Line of Duty and Happy Valley. But eventually the characters grow hollow, and the plot repetitive. Britain’s real-life police procedural needs a new format. Steve Hartshorn puts it this way: “Policing is there forever, so it needs a long-term solution. If we keep making the same mistakes as we have in the past, and expect a different result – was that Einstein’s definition of madness?”

[See also: Abolishing the Met Police is the only option left]

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