‘Don’t pull on that string,” he said. “If you do, you don’t know where it will end.” Those were the words of a senior official, spoken a little more than a decade ago, as I made the case inside the Home Office for an inquiry into the failure of the Metropolitan Police to solve the murder of Daniel Morgan.
The year was 2013, and Daniel had been killed 26 years earlier in 1987. But the case was one of Britain’s most notorious unsolved murders.
The private investigator had been found dead, with an axe in his neck, in a pub car park in south-east London. After four investigations, several inquiries and two failed prosecutions, in 2011 the Crown Prosecution Service admitted defeat and gave in.
The Met had already conceded that corruption among its officers was a factor in the failure to secure justice. It was understood by those familiar with the case that police officers had almost certainly had a hand in the conspiracy to protect the murderers – and had perhaps even played a role in the murder itself.
The reluctance of the official was not caused by corruption or willing complicity with anything the Met had done wrong. Rather it was a sense that the police, and in particular the Met, were just too big and too powerful to take on. Public confidence in the police had not yet, by this point, fallen through the floor, and maybe, officials seemed to believe, it was better to let sleeping dogs lie. If we started asking difficult questions, who knew where things would lead?
This was of course precisely the point of asking difficult questions, and the counter-argument was enough for Theresa May, then home secretary, to announce the inquiry.
Although it was supposed to be completed swiftly, the inquiry faced delays as the Met refused to engage, denying access to important databases and declining requests from the inquiry team to enter specific police premises. Cressida Dick herself – at the time an assistant commissioner, but subsequently promoted to commissioner – was censured for the lack of cooperation.
When the inquiry finally reported, it was scathing. It said the Met owed “Daniel Morgan’s family, and the public, an apology for not confronting its systemic failings, for the failings of individual officers and for its lack of candour to the members of the family.”
But worse, “in failing to acknowledge its many failings over the 34 years since the murder of Daniel Morgan, the Metropolitan Police placed the reputation of the organisation above the need for accountability and transparency”. In doing so, the report concluded, the Met was guilty of “institutional corruption”.
This week, new charges were added to the list. Baroness Casey, whose inquiry into the Metropolitan Police was published this week, labelled the force institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic.
Casey was asked to investigate standards of behaviour and the internal culture of the Met after the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer who used his warrant card and handcuffs to commit his despicable crime.
Shortly before Casey reported, David Carrick, another Met officer, was confirmed as one of Britain’s worst sex offenders ever, after he admitted 48 rapes and 85 serious offences in total. Like Couzens, Carrick abused his authority as a police officer to get away with his crimes.
For seasoned watchers of the Met there was little in the Casey review that was surprising. Testimonies from officers revealed racism, sexism and homophobia; a toxic culture of prejudice and bullying; horribly broken disciplinary processes that empowered abusers and exposed victims and witnesses; callous disregard for the victims of serious crimes; recklessness with sensitive evidence; an obvious absence of leadership; and a defensive mentality that put covering problems up before transparency and attempts to fix them.
This toxic culture has a terrible effect on many of the people working within the Met. Some of those giving evidence described sexual assault, harassment, and attempts to commit suicide. But quite obviously this culture also sets the tone for how many officers engage with members of the public and respond to victims of crime.
As an officer told the Casey review: “If you look at our performance around rape, serious sexual offences, the detection rate is so low you may as well say it’s legal in London. It’s kind of reflective of how we treat and view our female colleagues. You get victim blaming, looking at a situation and not believing [them].”
And the same is true with other serious crimes. A report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary more than six years ago looked into child protection in London. The report was described by Sir Tom Winsor, the Chief Inspector, as “the most severely critical that [the Inspectorate] has published about any force, on any subject, ever… There is no place in civilised society for the police to neglect their duty towards children in this way”. Yet the Casey review found such “problems become more severe each year”.
The trouble is not only these most extreme cases, but the overall effectiveness of the Met. Like in the rest of the country, in London overall crime has continued to fall. But there is persistent anti-social behaviour, difficulty with gang and knife crime and – in common with other forces – the Met is having to contend with crime moving online and the rising number of recorded serious offences, including domestic abuse and sex crimes.
Conventional policing in the capital is getting weaker. The Casey review asserts that: “London no longer has a functioning neighbourhood policing service.”
But the reasons for this are complex and in fact counter-intuitive. For while opposition politicians and many in policing like to blame the cuts of the Coalition years, the decline in neighbourhood policing cannot be explained by budgets alone.
Nationwide, officer numbers are at near-record levels. There are 142,145 officers across England and Wales, and in only two years before has the number ever been higher. In London, there are around 35,000 officers – the equivalent of nearly 400 per 100,000 residents. This is far higher than in any other part of the country, and more than twice the number of 21 forces.
This is partly down to London’s status as our capital city, and partly down to the Met’s national responsibilities, since its specialist operation functions – such as counter-terrorism policing and the protection command – apply beyond London. But even taking these factors into account, the Met is better funded, better staffed and better equipped than any force in the country – and by some distance. It is a £4.3 billion organisation going badly wrong.
Many of the problems relate to the poor leadership and toxic culture described in the Casey review. An internal estimate suggests around one in four Metropolitan Police officers – that is, almost 9,000 of them – are not fully deployable. The Met’s toxic culture and bullying problem appears to be a contributory factor in the cases of many officers on leave for health reasons.
The political emphasis on overall officer numbers is also to blame. Since 2019, the Government has had a target to recruit 20,000 extra officers. The grant given to police forces is conditional on chief constables recruiting specific numbers of new warranted officers. And this is a bipartisan approach: Labour say they would recruit an additional 13,000 officers – a number they seem to have plucked out of thin air.
The problem with recruitment targets is that they distort decisions made by chief constables, mayors and police and crime commissioners. Everything is subordinated to the recruitment of an arbitrary number of warranted officers. So, for example, forces put warranted officers into roles – such as running custody suites – done better and more cheaply by civilian staff.
To deliver real neighbourhood policing, forces need a good mix of warranted officers and police community support officers (PCSOs), yet the recruitment target means forces are increasing officer numbers while cutting PCSOs: nationwide, PCSO numbers are down almost 10 per cent in the last year. And as crime moves online and becomes more complex, forces need more analysts and tech experts, more likely to be civilian staff than officers.
But the Casey review also makes clear that the decline in neighbourhood policing is down to poor leadership and decision-making. As well as warranted officers filling positions that should be taken by civilian staff, Casey blames an internal reorganisation that means some basic command units cover up to four boroughs, and a conscious decision to protect well-resourced specialist units at the cost of a “denuded front line”.
There is no denying that the cultural problems in the Met – and more broadly in British policing – go a lot further than “a few bad apples”, which for years was the Pavlovian policing response to any allegation of misconduct.
The Met, after all, is the force that deployed an undercover officer to infiltrate the family of Stephen Lawrence after he was murdered, and used other officers to compile personal information about Stephen’s parents, allegedly to smear them.
It is the force that withheld evidence from the Macpherson report into Stephen’s murder, and refused to engage with the Daniel Morgan inquiry. It is the force that allowed members of its Special Demonstration Squad to have sexual relationships – and even father children – with women while working undercover.
These are all extreme examples of police misconduct that was not only left unpunished by the Met, but was tolerated and even authorised by senior officers. There are many other cases, and each raises an obvious question. If the police can abuse their power in such egregious ways and in such high-profile cases, what happens on routine patrols when officers encounter people they believe have no power or voice?
The use of stop and search is a contentious subject, with many officers insisting it is a vital power, and many critics saying its inappropriate use destroys public trust in the police, particularly among black people. Both sides are right – and yet both sides can take their argument too far.
The claim – repeated in the Casey review – that some communities are “over-policed” is a dangerous one.
Casey mentions black Londoners are “overrepresented in many serious crimes”, which seems to refer to black people being more likely both to be victims and perpetrators of crime.
The reasons for this are complex and social, rather than because of the police or criminal justice system. There should be no arbitrary targets to reduce the numbers of people from any race or ethnicity being stopped by the police, arrested or charged. The law should be upheld, and police powers used, in accordance with the evidence and the principle of equality before the law.
This is not to say that there is no problem with stop and search, nor that innocent black people do not suffer more than others from its abuse. The last big stop and search report by the Inspectorate found that 27 per cent of stops – out of more than one million nationwide – were carried out illegally, without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
And the Met has often given itself the power to stop and search without suspicion in areas as large as half a London borough, renewing its decision repeatedly – in effect abusing the law to grant itself permanent no-suspicion stop powers.
This is poor policing for two obvious reasons. If only one in eight stops lead to an arrest, given reporting requirements it is a waste of hundreds of thousands of hours of police time. And when black people know they are more likely to be searched than white people – they account for around a third of all stops in London – it undermines confidence in the police.
Protests by officers only reinforce the point. In the past, when the Home Office sought to ensure stops were carried out lawfully and more effectively, many officers complained that they “felt unable” to stop and search people any longer.
This was a form of blackmail: in effect, they were saying they would not use the powers available to them unless they were free to misuse them. Similarly, the argument reductions in stop and search fuel knife crime is undermined by the fact that only one in six stops are because an officer thought a suspect carried a weapon.
The evidence shows stop and search can help to cut crime – but the more stops that are carried out, the less effective they become.
As British policing staggers out of its denial phase, its leaders are beginning to comprehend the scale of the problem before them. It is not yet clear, however, that they can put things right.
So what might be done? First, the excuses need to end, and complacent boasts about how our model of policing is the envy of the world must stop. The Met, and British policing more generally, is in a severe crisis – a crisis of effectiveness, integrity and legitimacy.
Operational independence must be respected, but it should no longer be used as a shield to protect the police from scrutiny and accountability. Cant about the principles established by Sir Robert Peel – the founding father of policing by consent – should give way to an honest admission that the police are failing to live up to Peel’s vision.
And then, the response must be unsentimental and unsparing.
The sheer size of the Met is a problem. Policing such a large and diverse population is difficult enough. Policing a capital city, with its ceremonial events, embassies and visiting foreign leaders, and regular protests and marches, adds further complexity. Add to those challenges the Met’s national responsibilities and it becomes possible to understand how senior officers might lose their focus on neighbourhood policing.
The disconnect between leaders and local residents is cited not only by the Casey review but other recent reports, such as Policing Can Win, published by Policy Exchange.
The Met’s status as both a local and national force makes it difficult to hold its leadership accountable.
Every force in England and Wales outside London is held to account by a mayor or police and crime commissioner. But in London, the Met is accountable to the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime for local policing and to the Home Secretary for its national responsibilities.
This tempts the Home Office to interfere in what should be local matters, and allows the Mayor to evade responsibility for routine policing – an opportunity Sadiq Khan has not missed during his seven years in post.
The Met’s national responsibilities should, at an appropriate moment, transfer to the National Crime Agency. The NCA should be put on a 10-year trajectory in which its budget, capabilities and responsibilities are developed, and it should absorb the Met’s “specialist operations” commands as part of that process.
This change would make the Met London’s local police force, ordinarily accountable to the Mayor. But given the failure of the Mayor to grip the force in the first place, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, might choose to put the Met in special measures, and direct change herself.
Sir Mark Rowley and Lynne Owens, the Met Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner, are the best British police leaders of their generation. But they cannot change the Met on their own. Whole swathes of the force need to be cleared out, and new blood brought in. If that means hiring senior officers from overseas, or recruiting talent from other walks of life to take leadership roles in the Met, then that is what should happen. If doing so requires legal or policy changes, ministers should make them.
Many changes within the Met are needed. David Spencer, a former Met officer and author of Policing Can Win, argues that the top ranks need to be reduced in number, with fewer deputy assistant commissioners and fewer commanders. Resources should be transferred from centralised operational units to local policing.
Decision-making needs to be decentralised, communication with local communities improved, talented new recruits promoted sooner, training improved, and neighbourhood policing restored as the core of the Met’s policing strategy.
Misconduct hearings need to be improved and penalties stiffened, vetting processes reformed and regular re-vetting introduced, training should be professionalised and better recorded, workforce planning implemented properly, and, as Casey recommends, pension forfeiture rules should be reformed so criminal offences do not have to be committed “in connection” with an officer’s service for them to lose their pension.
Stop and search needs to be changed with a better understanding among officers of their legal responsibilities, better communication with communities, and increased transparency when stops take place.
Many necessary reforms need to apply not only to the Met, but policing as a whole.
Direct entry, the scheme that allowed applicants to become inspectors and superintendents without previous police experience, should be restored. But ministers should go further, and reform police recruitment more radically, creating a twin-track career structure and training programme similar to commissioned officers in the military.
The College of Policing, which is undergoing a period of reform, should be directed by the Home Secretary to ensure forces focus more on crime fighting, and do so with an evidence base of what works. The National Police Chiefs Council, which represents centralised, unaccountable power, should be abolished and its functions transferred to alternative, accountable entities.
There should be better use of productivity – improving technology, streamlined processes from arrest to prosecution, and more focus on training officers to understand how to use their powers legally and responsibly. The Police Federation, which does so much to poison police culture among rank and file officers, should be abolished and replaced by an untainted successor organisation.
The mission of police reform cannot only be about fixing the problems of today and yesterday, but making sure our law enforcement agencies are fit to face the future. In particular, the state needs to get much tougher with organised crime – through the development of the NCA, introducing new laws and powers, and reforming the police grant to make sure forces confront strategic threats.
We also need a real examination of how forces respond to the way crime is changing because of new technology.
Fraud, identity theft and cyber-crimes have increased and will rise further, and artificial intelligence will make the challenge even harder. This raises questions about prevention, investigation, the security of digital identities, and the expertise and capabilities within police forces. We can no longer expect forces to recruit generalist officers in the hope that they all offer the perfect blend of leadership, empathy, physical strength, investigatory skill and analytical expertise. The future of policing lies, to a significant degree, in specialisation.
But before we turn to the future, we have to face the here and now. We have, as that senior Home Office official warned against a decade ago, pulled on the string. If we are honest, we still do not know how much more will pass through our fingers. But we already know enough.
The British model of policing is worth saving, but it is in mortal danger. Those Peelian principles so beloved by chief constables – not least that vital insight that the police are the public, and the public are the police – are worth defending. To keep what we have, or more precisely to restore what we once had, requires radical change – change that can only be delivered by unsentimental yet principled leadership.