My Lords, the system of policing in this country is almost unique in that there are insufficient police officers to enforce the law by force and weight of numbers, they are predominantly unarmed and, by and large, the public work with them in that they act as the eyes and ears of the police, they co-operate with the police to enforce the law and maintain order, and they provide information and give evidence in judicial proceedings. The police should be “citizens in uniform” who act on behalf of, with the approval of and with the collaboration of the public. Were this not so, our police forces would have to be considerably larger and they would undoubtedly have to be armed.
Unlike other professions, the police’s ability to carry out their primary functions of improving public safety and preventing crime, harm and disorder is dependent on people trusting them. The more the public have trust and confidence in the police, the more likely they are to collaborate with them and therefore the more effective the police will be. For the police, reputation is therefore not simply a matter of professional pride but a matter of effectiveness in that, if there is a lack of trust and confidence in the police, they will be less effective, and that could inevitably result in a downward spiral.
As with many things in this world, that police chiefs want to cover up mistakes and misconduct is understandable but not justifiable. In the case of the police more than any other public body, there is a need for responsible journalism and, I have to say, responsible politics. Political grandstanding and media sensationalism when mistakes occur or misconduct is discovered not only compound the damage to the reputation of the police but make it less safe for all of us, because they unnecessarily undermine public trust and confidence and therefore police effectiveness. We need level-headed debate and objective and factual reporting.
There is evidence that public collaboration with the police is under threat, despite what the opinion polls may say. When I was a police constable in 1977 and we arrived at the scene of a fight, because the combatants were aware of our presence they used to stop what they were doing and we would arrest those whom we wanted to arrest. Nowadays, the combatants are likely to turn on the police. The riots in London and across the country in 2011 showed flagrant disregard for the law, for the maintenance of order and for the authority of the police. Research conducted after that rioting indicated that a lack of respect for the police was a major influence over the conduct of those taking part. While it is still true that trust and confidence in the police at a local level remain higher than for other public bodies, it is of growing concern that an increasing minority of citizens are refusing to accept that authority and refusing to co-operate with the police. So what is going wrong?
Clearly, there has been an erosion of respect in the attitude of some members of the public towards authority generally. Respect towards teachers, bankers, politicians and the police has shown signs of diminution in all cases. Some of the issues that specifically tend to undermine public trust and confidence in the police are what I would call “slow burn”; others are “big bang”. Almost all of them, I suggest, are the result of a less than ideal police culture and the failure of the systems designed to deal with that misconduct.
In the former category, there continue to be ongoing issues around the disproportionate stopping and searching of black and other minority-ethnic people. The propensity is for them to be arrested rather than warned, and to be charged rather than cautioned by the police. This is eroding communities’ willingness to collaborate with the police. The fact that a smaller proportion of black and other minority-ethnic people than of the white population is recruited into the police, that there are even fewer black and minority-ethnic senior police officers and that black and minority-ethnic police officers and police support staff are more likely to face formal misconduct hearings does not help black and other minority-ethnic communities to trust the police. Why has the police service not tackled these race-related issues and why have successive Governments not put pressure on the police service to put its house in order?
To deal with an issue, we have to admit that we have a problem. I believe that the police fear that if they admit that they have a problem with racism they will give their critics a field day, further undermine the morale of front-line officers and allow the unjustified stereotyping of all police officers as being racists. The statistics around stop and search and those other issues in policing that I have just mentioned continue to show that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Why have politicians shied away from the problem? When the police were last accused of institutional racism, following the Macpherson inquiry into the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence and the attempted murder of his friend Duwayne Brooks, front-line officers disengaged from stop and search for fear of being accused of racism. Street robbery increased to such epidemic proportions that the then Prime Minister personally pledged to bring down the number of street robbery offences. Neither police officers nor politicians—or any of us—want to see such an increase in crime again.
I appear to be in the minority who believes that such a situation is not inevitable. I believe, and have believed since the time of the Macpherson inquiry, that these issues, particularly the disproportionate stopping and searching of black and minority-ethnic people, can be dealt with without condemning every police officer and without harming relations—indeed, I believe that it would improve operational effectiveness, and could reverse the continuing damage to police community relations. Of course, black and minority-ethnic people will not join the police if they believe that the police treat them unfairly on the streets.
In the big-bang category we have high-profile and much publicised examples of organisational failure and malpractice. The most alarming perhaps in recent times is what has been discovered by the Hillsborough independent panel. The evidence suggests a cover-up of the kind to which I have already referred—one designed to prevent the damage to the reputation of the police service generally, not just to spare the embarrassment of the senior officers responsible. This appears to be an attempt to protect the reputation of the police ordered by some senior police officers, not misconduct by the rank and file.
For those who wish to think that attitudes have changed, I must disappoint noble Lords. When I was the police commander in Lambeth in 2001 a small riot took place in Brixton. In the subsequent investigation closed circuit television was examined and revealed police officers apparently beating an unarmed man on the ground with their batons. When that was brought to my attention as the police borough commander, I called three people—my immediate boss, the head of the internal investigation and the chair of the local community police consultative group. A group of trusted community leaders convened at the police station, where I showed the CCTV footage and assured them that everything would be done to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Apparently my bosses were apoplectic that I had revealed such malpractice to members of the community. I was told that next time I should not inform the community unless and until we had identified the perpetrators and had brought them to justice—presumably meaning that if we had not identified the individuals we should have kept the public in the dark. This is the understandable but unjustifiable mindset that still exists among some senior police officers, which is unhelpful, unhealthy and self-defeating. Openness at the time is far less damaging and can even be reassuring to the public, rather than attempting to cover up and being found out later. This culture of denial and cover-up, perpetuated and encouraged by some of those at the very top of the police service, inevitably impacts on those in the lower ranks, where there are additional reinforcing pressures.
Again while I was at Brixton, a young police officer told me that he was thinking of resigning from the police service. He said that the culture in the military, from where he had come, was very different. He said that in the military the most senior officer present when mistakes occurred took responsibility and, if necessary, faced a court martial. In the police, his experience was that mistakes were covered up, and if they came to light responsibility was pushed down to the lowest possible rank in order to protect senior officers. My 30 years of experience, albeit in one police force, absolutely chimes with the perceptions of this young police officer.
However, there are other factors at work that encourage cover-up, including the unfair way in which the police complaints system operates. When complaints are investigated, those investigating seem determined to get you for something. When a complaint was made about an incident in which I was involved, during which I scratched my hand, because they could not find anything else on me I was later criticised and formally sanctioned for failing to report an injury on duty.
A series of cases have been brought to my attention since I left the police in 2007, where officers have been open and honest about what took place and feel that they have been punished for their honesty. Their use of what they considered to be reasonable force resulted in them being sacked, while others who falsely denied touching anyone during the same incident escaped justice. I have been presented with evidence of biased and one-sided investigations where investigating officers, convinced of the guilt of individuals, have excluded, and even illegally withheld, evidence that might prove otherwise.
The perceived unfairness of the complaints investigation system is compounded further in the Metropolitan Police by the fact that each and every misconduct hearing, almost without exception, is chaired by the same senior police officer. The judge in these cases is effectively employed by the prosecution. When I sat on such hearings, I would sometimes be told afterwards by the Department for Professional Standards that I had wrongly acquitted a corrupt officer. My fear is that the fact that it has a tame judge might tempt the Department for Professional Standards to give such a briefing before the evidence is heard.
The major issue that needs to be tackled is the culture of blame and cover-up in the police, which must change. In my experience, there will be no change without political pressure from outside. In return there should be responsible debate and reporting of police activity, with as much airtime and column inches in praise of the good work and successes achieved by the overwhelming majority of decent, hard-working police officers as is given to the tiny minority whose conduct falls short of what is required.
We need a system for the investigation of incompetence, mistakes and deliberate malpractice that is both fair and independent and has the confidence of both the public and police officers. We still have the best police service in the world, but we need to bring about radical change if we are to preserve and enhance its hard won reputation. I beg to move.