British Police Face Up to a ‘Legitimacy’ Challenge

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London police by Charles Roffy via Flickr

The UK Commissioner of Police, Dame Cressida Dick, was hit by a double whammy last month.

Along with the rest of the Metropolitan Police force, she had been relieved at the force’s official exoneration by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary Fire and Rescue Services, the independent inspectorate for UK policing, for its conduct during the March 13 Sarah Everard vigil.

Editor’s Note:  The remains of Everard, a 33-year-old London marketing executive, were found on March 10. Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police officer, has been arrested in connection with her murder.

But the collective sigh of relief following the Inspectorate’s report, which absolved the police for any mishandling of the protest, was brief.

Within days, the Times of London on April 1 published an investigative article claiming that an unidentified police officer accused of rape by two female colleagues had continued to serve without suspension.

And the same week, a probationary Metropolitan police constable, Bernard Hannam, became the UK’s first-ever officer to be convicted of belonging to a terrorist organisation.

Both these revelations appeared to underline at least one of the findings of the Everard report.

public confidence in the Metropolitan Police suffered as a result of the vigil, and that given the impact of images of women under arrest – which were widely disseminated on social media – a more conciliatory response after the event might have served the Met’s interests better.”

Although the report had concluded that officers policing the Everard event were even-handed and practiced appropriate public-order policing to quell the disturbances, the two new revelations only further eroded public confidence in the Metropolitan police.

While that problem will be familiar to Americans in the wake of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction in the death of George Floyd, the series of revelations and reports represents an inflection point for British policing.

For many years, the Metropolitan police have been regarded as a world-class example of delivering policing in a democratic society.

But while the model for policing itself may not be in question, the behavior of dsome of its officers is dragging its reputation through the mud.

In a column published in The Crime Report last month, I wrote that figures obtained by the Independent newspaper in 2019 regarding allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence perpetrated by Metropolitan police officers and staff made grim reading.

The newspaper reported that 568 London police officers were accused of sexual assault between 2012 and 2018, with only 43 officers facing disciplinary action.

There were also 700 reports of domestic violence by police officers and staff from 2015 to 2018.

Even though the figures related to London police, law enforcement throughout the UK have had their reputations and standing in their communities tarnished by the revelations of the past few weeks. The public generally do not differentiate between police forces when these stories hit the news.

The Metropolitan police is a microcosm of the larger policing family in the UK. What is reported there, affects them all.

This goes to the very heart of police legitimacy.

Policing with the consent of the public is fundamentally based on the acceptance of this legitimacy. There is no better demonstration of this than the public’s acceptance of policing in the pandemic. In the face of very difficult rules and regulations, they have complied with the police enforcement of those rules.

So why does this matter so much?

There have been a number of significant events that raise questions about how the legitimacy of our policing is demonstrated.

The willingness of the British public to take to the streets to protest their anger and support for the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S.  shows that there is a belief that racism is alive and well in the UK.

Yet a recently published report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities maintains that institutional racism is not inherent in the UK today.

“The UK is not deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities,” said the Commission, a conclusion that outraged commentators on the BBC and elsewhere in the media.

What seems to be clear is that the police service, despite these findings and despite many years of effort to promote diversity, still does not properly reflect the society it serves. Over 25 percent of UK police forces have no black officers at all.

Christopher “Kit” Malthouse, the UK Minister of State in the Home Office and Ministry of Justice has instructed police forces to increase their recruitment of ethnic minorities.

Editor’s Note:  Mr Malthouse’s role as the minister for crime policing and the fire service was extended in 2020 to include the ministry of justice. It is one of several ministries grouped under the Secretary of State for the Home Office, a senior level cabinet position responsible for portfolios ranging from crime and security to immigration—roughly similar to the Department of Justice in the U.S.

But the problem extends beyond diversity.

The rising-up of women across the UK to express their anger at the death of Sarah Everard and the groundswell of support for the belief that crimes against women are not taken seriously enough, by police and the criminal justice system, has shaken British society to the core.

Similarly, the rioting in the city of Bristol against proposals in the new police and crime bill to give police extended powers in controlling public protests, and the disturbing acts of hatred and violence towards the police officers in attendance, has also given rise to grave concerns about how some of the public views its police service.

As a veteran of more than 30 years in UK policing, I don’t believe that the consent for our British way of policing is on the wane. Most of the acts and protests against the police are carried out by an extremist minority.

However, the alarm being felt over a police service that is failing to properly reflect the diversity, standards and values that the public rightly require of it, has severely damaged the standing of the police service in the UK today.

It’s also impossible to underestimate the impact made by the Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd . The proceedings were carried daily in the UK  media, a reflection of the strength of feeling that British people have concerning the fairness of criminal justice and the police use of force in the U.S. today.

The racism and discrimination that much of the of the Black and Asian community in the UK feel is similarly a continuing blight on British society, events in the U.S. have made a strong impression.

There is also a concern.  While the American experience is not a mirror image of the UK problems, the exposure given to the issues concerning the policing of Black people in America, by the British media , will continue to foster those negative feelings that some sections of UK society feel about the police, and of policing in general.

It may be fortuitous that the Government has commissioned a strategic review of policing in 2020 that is currently ongoing, and the scope will now surely include these matters in its public consultation phase.

There is a system of rolling inspections conducted by Her Majesties Inspectorate of Constabulary Fire and Rescue Services, called the Peel Inspections ( an acronym for policing efficiency effectiveness and legitimacy).

These were stopped in March 2020 due to the demands on policing made by the coronavirus pandemic and won’t resume until it is over. In the last published assessment report  which incorporated findings up to March 2020, The Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Tom Winsor, pointed out that:

“…. focusing on dealing well with the most serious offences and safeguarding the most vulnerable in society may come at the expense of wider public confidence and satisfaction in policing. The factors I have described in this assessment have a worrying consequence: across the gamut of crime, the police service can’t provide the consistently high levels of service the public would hope to receive.”

This may well be the case, but UK policing can’t hide behind a lack of resources forever.

As the number of recruits increase in line with the government’s targets, then it is a prime opportunity for recruit training to go back to the founding principles of Sir Robert Peel set out in 1829, and indeed for these to be measured, assessed and inspected against in future.

Nowhere have I seen a commitment to these better demonstrated than in a small local police department in the U.S. The University of Washington police department has published in full its commitment to Peel’s principles for policing.

It does this because it clearly believes in putting the attitudes and behaviours of its officers at the forefront of the service it provides, as well as the service itself.

Gareth Bryon

Gareth Bryon

It may be that in a wrestling with complex policing issues delivered in extraordinary times, the UK police service has in some cases, lost sight of this.

There is now a wonderful opportunity to put this right.

Gareth Bryon, a former Detective Chief Superintendent, served as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigations and forensic science services for 30 years.

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