The police must stifle the belief within the force that they can work to different rules from the rest of society
Now is not a good time to be a police officer. Redundancies, cutbacks, slashed pensions, fears that newly elected police and crime commissioners will politicise the thin blue line, the creeping privatisation of non-core elements of the service; all are conspiring to make the British bobby question his or her career choice. It is hardly surprising, then, that discontent among the rank and file has soured relations between the police and politicians.
In recent years, this growing divide has seen the police march on Westminster in their tens of thousands and ministers given frosty receptions at Police Federation conferences. The mutually toxic lack of trust has seen the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, oust the former Met commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, while many disillusioned senior figures in the force have jumped to the private sector, leaving a vacuum in experience.
Plebgate is a manifestation of this divide. What exactly happened between the former chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, and the two police officers at the Downing Street gate is unlikely to be objectively confirmed. But it is clear that the saga has been used by elements within the police to widen rifts. Many within the Police Federation, particularly the West Midlands branch that represents officers in Mitchell’s constituency, gleefully pounced on the toxic word “pleb” to turn a minor, albeit deeply embarrassing altercation, into a proxy war on the Tory party.
That it was left to Channel 4 News to throw cold water on some of the claims made against Mitchell – releasing the CCTV footage that raises as many questions as it answers – is equally troubling. Plebgate happened on 19 September. Three months later and very little is clear. Even the briefest study of the footage suggests there are legitimate questions about the veracity of what was recorded about the incident in the police log.
History, however, confirms that the force has often been reluctant to investigate itself. The phone-hacking saga revealed that there was, at best, an entrenched lack of curiosity among senior officers to reinvestigate the Met’s original, limited, probe into the industrial invasions of privacy perpetrated by the News of the World.
Demands for an inquiry into allegations that South Yorkshire officers committed assault, perjury and perverted the course of justice over the “battle of Orgreave” during the miners’ strike, coupled with September’s damning report about the police’s role at Hillsborough, reinforce the view that the force has long been plagued by elements that see themselves outside the law.
Troublingly, the death of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, the questionable disciplinary record of the MPS Territorial Support Group, and the sexual exploits of undercover officer Mark Kennedy suggest this view continues to prevail even now in some quarters.
The police are the public and the public are the police, observed the modern force’s founder, Sir Robert Peel. A subterranean belief within the force that this is not so is destructive and insults the work ethic of the overwhelming majority. Indeed, this year a hugely successful Olympics and the public outpouring of anger following the killing of two officers in Manchester served as a reminder of how much society relies on and values the police.
But a modern force must be accountable, transparent and sufficiently confident to look critically on itself. Too often, this is not the case.