Racist, Sexist and Corrupt: The Officers Patrolling British Streets
In the United Kingdom, policing has come under scrutiny for racism, sexism and corruption. Greta Scott investigates.
The British police are a reflection of British politics. Not just because we elect our police and crime commissioners, or because the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (the head of London’s Metropolitan Police) is appointed by the Home Secretary, or because the Police and Crime Commissioner for London is the Mayor of London. The police are a reflection of twelve years of Conservative government. Under David Cameron, austerity measures meant severe police cuts. Under Boris Johnson, scrambling to reinforce the police force meant mad recruitment schemes and under-vetted officers with increased powers. But for perhaps even longer than that, the police has emitted the acrid stench of corruption. A lot of these issues are centred around the Metropolitan Police, but are prevalent in other forces. Let’s talk about the British policing crisis.
999: What’s your emergency?
The cracks in British policing began to show following the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by Met Police Officer Wayne Couzens in March 2021. Outrage following the murder was manifested in the organisation of vigils to mark her death. On Clapham Common, officers arrested several people at the vigil, breaking up the gathering and trampling on flowers left by mourners. Patsy Stevenson, the face of the campaign for the vigil, has said that her Tinder profile was liked by about fifty police officers following her arrest.
This story not only revealed the terrifying fact that police officers who are possible murderers have been recruited, but also a deeper “canteen culture” among officers, where bigotry and law-breaking are tolerated.
Bobbies on the beat
Recruitment is a huge issue: a government target to recruit 20,000 new officers in three years (nearly one-quarter of which will join the Met) has caused concerns over vetting practices. Some candidates are not required to submit employment references, and since the pandemic has pushed much of the recruitment process online, many applicants aren’t met in person until they try on their uniform. This has meant that hundreds of racist, sexist and corrupt officers are currently in the police force, armed with very real power and authority over the public.
The laughing policeman
In November, Gwent Police received accusations of affairs, corruption, misogyny and homophobia within the force, after messages sent among officers were reported by the Sunday Times. Earlier last month, an investigation was launched into nine officers for using discriminatory language whilst on duty. This hardly comes as a surprise, after it was revealed following Sarah Everard’s murder that many police officers are part of WhatsApp groups in which they share “grossly offensive” messages. In the WhatsApp chat, Wayne Couzens was nicknamed “the rapist.” This disgusting practice was also called out after officers shared photos of the bodies of two murdered sisters on WhatsApp in June 2020, including one photo with an officer’s face superimposed onto one of the women. On the Charing Cross group chat, officers joke about rape, domestic violence and racism, and this is brushed off as “banter.” Last month, Open Democracy obtained information regarding disciplinary action against officers who had sent racist and sexist messages after a year-long freedom-of-information battle with the Met. They found that many officers kept their jobs after sending offensive messages. These officers were described by the then-Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, as the "bad 'uns."
The Met sets the standard for other police forces, and to say that it’s falling short would be an understatement. Last month, an interim report into Met police failings, commissioned after the murder of Sarah Everard, revealed systemic issues in the Met—most notably the failure to hold officers accountable for their behaviour. Staff are ignored when they complain of wrongdoing, and since 2013, 1,809 officers and staff have had multiple allegations against them and only 13 of those have been dismissed. Such wrongdoing includes racism and sexual harassment (in 2021, 47% of police officers experienced sexual harassment by their colleagues). The Met is currently investigating more than 600 domestic and sexual abuse allegations against its officers. Not only are bigots not punished, but black officers are 81% more likely to face disciplinary action than their white counterparts, creating a culture of institutionalised racism and sexism in the force.
Another report into eight police forces (including the Met) last month found a culture of misogyny in the police. Sexual crimes have been covered up, female officers have been harassed, and so-called “booty patrols” see officers randomly stop women in the street. The report found that between 2018 and 2021, new recruits included an officer who had previously knocked down an 80-year-old woman and stolen her handbag, an officer who had been arrested twice for assaulting women, and an officer who had been arrested for rape. Just two days ago, a former Met officer was jailed for stealing £1,500.
Meanwhile, stories have been increasingly popping up of British citizens being unfairly arrested. This year, two citizens were arrested on separate occasions for peaceful protests against the monarchy. When questioned, officers argued that they were acting under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, a highly controverisal act which has made it easier for police to arrest protesters. Then, last month, two journalists were baselessly arrested whilst covering a climate protest in Hertfordshire. This now makes eight journalists in total who have been arrested while covering Just Stop Oil protests. Meanwhile last month, a woman was paid £40,000 in compensation by Nottinghamshire Police after two officers trespassed into her home and unlawfully arrested her in 2017, leaving her with PTSD. One of the officers implicated has since got his back after appealing his dismissal for gross misconduct. This fresh batch of officers seems all too quick to abuse their new powers, offered to them on a plate by a law-and-order focussed government.
Boys in blue
Corruption is yet another issue. In 2021, a report accused the Met of institutionalised corruption in the way that it concealed its failings for the sake of its public image over the murder of Daniel Morgan in 1987. One possible reason for Morgan’s murder was that he was on the verge of revealing links between corrupt police officers and organised criminals. There are allegations that police officers were either involved in his murder or helped to keep the murderers from being brought to justice. Dame Cressida Dick is personally accused of obstructing the investigation into the Met’s failings. According to Alastair Morgan, “Anyone with any knowledge of the history of the police knows how much they hate scrutiny.”
Oddly, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson continued to back Dame Cressida in spite of the myriad of scandals I have described above. Nothing is confirmed as to collusion between Boris Johnson’s government and Dame Cressida’s Metropolitan Police, but you wouldn’t be foolish for thinking something was amiss. At the height of the Partygate scandal earlier this year, which saw government members attend parties during COVID lockdowns, the Met appeared reluctant to step in. First, police officers were present at the scene of the law-breaking parties, but did not shut them down. Second, the Met initially refused to investigate the allegations of parties, citing a lack of evidence (despite the PM’s own admission of his guilt). The Met then, seven weeks after initial reports of law-breaking, randomly decided to launch an investigation just as an independent report was about to be published. The independent report was then only allowed to make “minimal reference” to parties which the Met was also investigating, leaving the report a mere 12 pages. Finally, when the Met completed its own investigation, it issued surprisingly few fines given the volume of alleged parties. All this seems curiously convenient for a Prime Minister who had given his support to a Commissioner mired in scandal.
In February this year, in light of these various scandals and revelations, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan declared that he had lost confidence in Dame Cressida’s leadership of the Met. Despite having stayed in office through all the scandals prior, at this she stated that she felt “intimidated” into stepping down from her role, and resigned. I can’t help but draw a cautious parallel with a certain Prime Minister who survived scandal after scandal, only to reluctantly resign when he lost the support of the institution propping him up. Upon leaving, Dame Cressida uncomfortably described the Met as “a wonderful place to work,” apparently ignoring the very reasons why she had been forced to resign.
The new Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, promises change, but this kind of toxicity will be difficult to dilute. The issues British police forces are facing are systemic and widespread, with news of scandals still coming out on a daily basis across England and Wales (in the process of writing this article, I have added four new scandals, as they were reported). The full report into the Met’s failings is expected next year, along with another report commissioned by the government. A Welsh government minister has also called for a national inquiry into English and Welsh police forces. But these issues are not confined to the Police; a recent review into the London Fire Brigade found it to also be "institutionally misogynist and racist”. Whilst the number of damning reports into British institutions stack up, British citizens will continue to put their lives in the hands of public servants guided by a culture of sexism, racism and corruption, and the sense of impunity which British institutions seem uninterested in shaking off.