Unfair cops: it’s not about ‘bad apples’

After the News of the World scandal and the death of Mark Duggan, Val Swain asks ‘who will police the police?’

December 7, 2011 · 10 min read

In recent months the Metropolitan Police has been rocked by allegations of collusion in the phone hacking conspiracy and revelations of the extraordinary level of hospitality enjoyed by the former Met commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson. Even as it cleared Stephenson and three other senior police officers of misconduct, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was moved to comment that ‘the public will make its own judgements about whether any senior public official should accept hospitality to this extent from anyone.’

Other senior officers, including the then acting Met commissioner, Tim Godwin, and the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, Peter Fahy, leapt to Stephenson’s defence. He was guilty only of ‘misjudgements’, Fahy insists. They have also repeated the assertion that police corruption is ‘not endemic’ – a view that is not easy to share.

Police forces have never managed to stem the steady stream of corrupt and dishonest cops going through the courts, although it is hard to know just how extensive the problem is. There are certainly major issues relating to the misuse of police information systems. The Met alone has disciplined 84 officers over the past three years for illegally accessing computer systems. Demand for police information extends far beyond News International’s hacking exploits, and this is likely to be the tip of a large iceberg.

The most serious issue, however, is not one of ‘bad apples’ but the extent to which the police misuse and abuse the significant political and institutional power that they exert over our society.

Political police

The fact that the modern British police constitutes a political force is becoming increasingly self-evident. Through a variety of channels, including direct lobbying of politicians and the involvement of the Association of Chief Police Officers in key policy committees, the police have long been in the business of influencing government policy. They also do a great deal of networking with local government, private industry and, of course, the media.

They wield a remarkable degree of power at every level of society. As a result of their procurement requirements, a large number of private interests have significant contracts with the 56 police forces in the UK. These include arms, security and information technology companies, many of which employ ex-police officers in senior or lucrative positions. An even larger section of society depends on various licences to carry out trades that are granted or influenced by the police. And, of course, the police have the ability to use violence to control, contain and arrest, as well as significant discretion to push people into, or keep people out of, the criminal justice system.

None of this in itself is evidence of corruption – but it is certainly evidence of an environment in which corruption can flourish. Cosy cliques building up among powerful individuals and institutions are a recipe for corrupt practices, as the phone hacking scandal has shown. Yet there is no watchdog that can effectively oversee the mechanics of what is going on in our police forces.

Hospitality, it seems, will be the subject of some public scrutiny. The Met stated at the end of July that it would publish figures for gifts and hospitality ‘within weeks’. This will no doubt provide entertaining reading, but it is disappointing not to see similar pledges from other forces. Chief constables are supposed to police the public without distinction and any ‘incentive’ to do otherwise should at the very least be available for public examination.

The relationship of police and media also bears inspection. Police forces are usually keen to form good relationships with the press. They happily provide tip-offs and titbits of stories, but in return often expect the media to reflect a police perspective of events. Coverage of political events, such as demonstrations and rallies, frequently reflect a police viewpoint. Depending on circumstances, there is a thin line between an effective working relationship and an unhealthy ability to influence the media’s portrayal of events.

Issuing false information in an attempt to manipulate public opinion is clearly something that crosses that line. Yet there is a pattern of this occurring in the Met’s public statements, particularly where there are suspicions of wrongful police actions.

Wilful misinformation

The most startling instances of apparently wilful misinformation have occurred in relation to victims of police violence. Ian Tomlinson was killed at a G20 demonstration in 2009. Shortly afterwards, the police issued a statement, reported widely in the press, that police had been ‘pelted with missiles believed to include bottles as they tried to save his life’. In fact, riot police at the scene had not been hit with missiles – but had obstructed protesters who were trying to administer first aid and call for an ambulance. This only became known as a result of efforts by witnesses and G20 campaigners, an investigation by the Guardian newspaper and footage taken by witnesses.

This blatant attempt to mislead the public, and to shift blame from themselves to a group of supposedly violent protesters, has never been properly investigated. Neither have other attempts by the police to manipulate the media to their own advantage.

Mohammed Abdul Kahar, shot by police in his home in Forest Gate during a terror raid in 2006, was finally released without charge after a week in custody. But the destruction of his reputation in the press, including unfounded allegations of child pornography, caused him and his family ‘irreparable damage’, in the words of his sister.

Cases such as these have highlighted the woeful inadequacy of regulatory and investigatory bodies to oversee police behaviour. The IPCC oversees complaints, as well as automatically investigating all deaths involving the police, but there is little public confidence in a body that appears anything other than independent. Figures reveal a mere 10 per cent of complaints to the police are upheld, and a significant proportion of those are complaints from other police officers. Eight out of ten of the IPCC’s senior investigators and more than a third of all investigators are former police officers or police staff.

The family of Sean Rigg, who died in police custody after an arrest in 2008, have been campaigning for three years to get answers to crucial questions, and are particularly scathing about the failures of the IPCC. In an interview with the Guardian a year after his death, they spoke of the failure of the IPCC to investigate the case properly, and particularly to recover crucial evidence. Instead of investigating robustly, they said, it failed to go ‘beneath the surface’ and simply took whatever evidence was provided by the Met.

Deaths in custody

According to figures published by the respected pressure group Inquest, there have been 409 deaths in custody since 2000. Inquest has identified numerous deaths that raise issues about standards of care, such as deaths due to self-injury, alleged drunkenness or drug intoxication, or poor medical care, as well as deaths that raise issues of excessive use of force by police officers.

These figures do not include the three deaths that occurred after police restraint at the end of August. Philip Hulmes, aged 53, and Dale Burns, 27, both died after police discharged taser guns. Dale Burns was reportedly shocked three times by a taser. Jacob Michael, aged 25, died after police restrained him using pepper spray. Witnesses to his arrest have described how the police punched and kicked him while he was on the floor, restrained and in handcuffs. Eleven police officers were involved in the arrest. Inquest reacted to these latest deaths by stating that ‘it is imperative that the police are reminded that they cannot act with impunity’.

There have also been 32 fatal shootings by police in the past ten years. The latest was Mark Duggan, whose death at the hands of the police sparked the riots in August. The failure of the police to provide prompt and accurate information to the Duggan family has exacerbated problems. In addition, the IPCC has had to apologise for ‘inadvertently misleading the press’, by implying in a telephone conversation to a media contact shortly after the incident that it was Mark Duggan who had opened fire first. As it turned out, the only bullets fired had been fired by the police.

For all the deaths, including the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes as he got on a tube train at Stockwell, there has not been one single successful prosecution of any police officer. The IPCC has claimed that this has been in part due to a reluctance of juries to convict police officers, but campaigners point to an evident lack of will on the part of the police, the IPCC and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to conduct robust investigations and prosecutions.

Riot factor

Anger at the treatment of Mark Duggan was one factor in the recent riots, but there are others. Persistent stop and search is frequently cited by young people as a cause of discontent. Campaigners have also highlighted that police often break stop and search laws that are meant to provide protection to the individual.

The police frequently, and unlawfully, demand personal information as they carry out stop and searches, and there is a general perception, not without foundation, that the police will use force or will carry out punitive arrests or strip searches against those who are not sufficiently compliant.

There is clearly a close relationship between the police and the CPS, despite its insistence that it works independently. Again this does not necessarily demonstrate corruption, only the potential for it. An inquiry is currently taking place as to why the CPS withheld key evidence in a trial of activists for an environmental protest in 2009. The evidence, which included crucial recordings of an alleged conspiracy, came to light during the exposure of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy.

When the police published a strategy aimed at remanding in custody all those arrested during the summer riots, they clearly felt able to rely on CPS support. Despite the fact that all cases should be treated on their merits, the CPS worked on a conveyor belt of cases to ensure 66 per cent were remanded into custody, included those arrested for less serious matters. This interference by police in the criminal justice system is currently the subject of judicial review. In what is also seen as a political policing initiative, the CPS issued guidance to prosecutors to request the usual anonymity for young people in the courts to be lifted, so that teenagers could be ‘named and shamed’.

The disparity between the treatment of young, working class men and women in the riots and privileged, well-connected individuals in the phone hacking affair is blatant and inescapable. Justice in the riots was dispensed instantly, at the full height of public anger, through courts sitting through the night. Sentences have been unduly harsh and even the Law Society has warned of ‘rushed justice’. In contrast, the investigation into serious offences in connection with phone hacking has been slow, cautious and hesitant, and the police have appeared to take every possible opportunity to stall investigations.

Ultimately, this is the real evidence of corruption within the police and criminal justice system. That there is one law for one set of the population – the rich, the powerful and the police – and one for the rest of us, will come as a surprise to nobody at all.

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