“Nobody hates bad cops more than good cops”, I heard a Seattle police chief say at a police reform event a few years ago. That line stuck with me. But what happens when the bad cops are ruling the roost, and have poisoned the whole organisation?
Of all the dreadful findings of Baroness Louise Casey’s review into the Metropolitan Police, the most shocking is that the Met failed to realise the gravity of the situation after Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a serving police officer. Londoners had pretty much given up expecting the force to investigate burglary. But we had thought it was their job to keep us safe, not our job to protect ourselves from the police. Everard’s death was a diabolical epiphany for citizens — but apparently not for the Met.
The Casey review has exposed a system rotten to the core, arrogant and abusive. Good people felt “beaten down” — as one policewoman caller told a radio station this week — reduced to plodding on through misogyny and racism while feeling guilty for not calling it out. Some departments were starved of cash, while others threw money at management consultants.
How do you change such a culture? How do you recruit new officers, when some of the very groups you need to attract — women and ethnic minorities — have lost faith? You can’t simply abolish a service responsible for a city of 8mn people. But it is wholly unacceptable that predators can still exist in the force. One hundred Met officers are working despite being under investigation for sexual misconduct. Shedding guilty officers, and scrapping labyrinthine misconduct procedures that have kept them in post, is surely the minimum.
Casey has resisted calling for the Met to be broken up. Having worked in and around government for years, she has probably seen too many overhauls of public sector structures that end up as a superficial rebranding. But here, Northern Ireland offers lessons.
The transformation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary into the Police Service of Northern Ireland, as part of the peace process, was a dramatic shift that many had thought impossible. The RUC had policed Northern Ireland during its worst sectarian violence, and hundreds of its officers were killed during the Troubles. In 1999, a commission chaired by Chris Patten set out a vision for a new service, to be half Catholic, replacing what had been out of necessity a quasi-military force with community-style policing. Catholics distrusted the RUC and made up less than 10 per cent of its staff, though roughly 40 per cent of the Northern Irish population. By 2021, they made up roughly 30 per cent.
It wasn’t just the staff: the whole ecosystem changed. Local partnerships were created, a new Police Board, and a new complaints procedure. An international commission of retired officers from the US and Canada was created, to which the PSNI had to report. I always worry about quangocracy but these accountability bodies seem to have worked. Jonny Byrne, an Ulster University criminologist, calls the PSNI one of the biggest successes of the peace process.
“People won’t trust the Met to change itself, in the same way they didn’t trust the RUC to change itself” says Professor Stephen White, a senior officer with both the RUC and PSNI who worked on the reforms. He points to two unusual requirements made of the police in the Police Act of Northern Ireland: to act ethically and with the support of the local community. It may sound absurd to make such requirements explicit in law — but I wonder if the Met is now in that situation.
Casey has called for neighbourhood policing to be given the same status as specialist firearms units. In Northern Ireland, the shift towards community-style policing had the added benefit of attracting more female applicants, according to Bob Peirce, who drafted the Patten report and is now a police adviser in America. A book he co-authored, Seven Ways to Fix Policing Now, argues that police training on both sides of the Atlantic should be taken out of police academies, which reinforce machismo not collaboration and undervalue the policing time spent dealing with people in distress.
The RUC was far smaller than the Met and not discredited in the same way. But it shed a lot of officers quickly, as the Met must do for different reasons.
There is a glimmer of hope in the palpable relief that many rank-and-file officers are expressing after Casey’s exposure of horrors that can no longer be ignored — and now that new Met commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, admits that the Met’s failings are “systemic”. His refusal to use Casey’s term “institutional” caused outrage. But given its longstanding political overtones I will settle for “systemic”, as long as Rowley shows that he means it.
Humility will be crucial — along with a willingness to face unflattering comparisons. Scotland Yard likes to brag about being the biggest and best force in the country. But it is questionable whether it is even doing the basics well enough. In 2021, the Met had the highest stop-and-search rate compared with similar forces, but the lowest rate of arresting drug dealers. Bill Bratton, former New York police chief, used to obsess about such data. Rowley should too.
At the event in Seattle, a different police chief said: “It’s the hearts and minds I’m going after, not just new policy.” The Met will only get our hearts and minds back, and those of its own officers, if it stops closing ranks and learns from outside.