Tories and cops: when thieves fall out...

Author: 
Martin Thomas

When thieves fall out... The Tory party and the police are unusually at odds, and right-wing Tory journalist Max Hastings has been prompted to say some truths about the cops (Financial Times, 21 December).

The Tories are angry about police resistance to budget cuts, and about Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell falling foul of the police in September. Mitchell was rude to a cop who told him to walk his bike rather than riding it, and - it seems - the cop, used to making things up against those whom he clashed with, invented the story that Mitchell had called him a "pleb" and got another cop to "corroborate" it.

As a Tory, Mitchell has nothing to say about Ian Tomlinson, killed by the cops on a G20 protest; Alfie Meadows, nearly killed by the cops on a student fees protest; the 1428 people who died in police custody or in police pursuits between 1990 and early 2012; the 3000 young people picked up, some at random, by cops during and after the August 2011 riots; "kettling"; or police attacks on picket lines and left-wing demonstrations.

Yet he paints a picture those all fall into.

"The inquest verdict on the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster has been set aside, after revelations that senior officers systematically falsified and suppressed evidence to transfer blame from themselves to the victims. Elsewhere it has been discovered that in October an officer masqueraded as a tourist and claimed himself to have heard the Tory chief whip abusing policemen at the Downing Street gates, an allegation that forced Andrew Mitchell's resignation as chief whip.

Brian Leveson, in his recent report on press excesses, was naive enough to acquit the Metropolitan Police of anything worse than incompetence in conducting its abortive 2007 inquiries into phone-hacking at the News of the World. But other informed people take a bleaker view, recalling the astonishing parade of serving and former senior officers who attended Rupert Murdoch's parties.

Police leaks to the media, either for cash or self-serving motives, have often resulted in innocent men being treated in print as known criminals. I remember the old Fleet Street sage Bill Deedes shaking his head as he said: "Once upon a time, if the police brought in a suspect for questioning, his identity was kept secret until he was, or was not, charged. Not any more."

More than 30 years ago, when police detection skills were being discussed at a country dinner party, I was intrigued by the cynicism of the views expressed by a barrister present. Today Igor Judge, the brief in question, is Lord Chief Justice. I often wonder if he now thinks better of the force, and doubt it. Juries have become chronically sceptical about police evidence, and who can blame them?

Again and again, officers are found to have told less than the truth about their actions, as some did during the inquiry into the 2005 killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, an entirely innocent man mistaken for a terrorist, at Stockwell tube station.

So-called police "marksmen" have several times shot dead deranged men who could have been taken into custody with minimal risk to officers or the public. A striking example was lawyer Mark Saunders. In 2008, he was trapped in his house in Markham Square, Chelsea, and armed only with a shotgun, but a senior officer is reported to have told his team: "He's been taking pops at the Old Bill and that changes the rules." A coroner's jury accepted police explanations for shooting Saunders, but some of us thought the episode iniquitous.

The force long ago abandoned the doctrine of minimum force. Officers now seem to rejoice in posturing in paramilitary garb, heavily armed and even hooded. The latter is especially indefensible in a democracy...

We should not idealise the past as a golden age of policing. Some innocent men were hanged, suspects routinely beaten up. Corruption was endemic, especially in the Met: Dixon of Dock Green was probably on the take. What was different then is that malpractices were tidied away in the closet. There was a social compact. The police accepted a duty to protect the middle classes – even sometimes from the consequences of their own minor misdemeanours. Instead, they focused on keeping the criminal class where it belonged, by means that society found it convenient not to inquire closely into...

We are at a near-impasse: our policing culture is badly tarnished; the Police Federation's conduct during the Mitchell saga looks even more disgraceful now than it did last month. Too many policemen are overpaid, under-managed, of doubtful competence and – worst of all – of indifferent honesty and integrity. It will be a sorry story if this government, like its predecessors, backs off from reform. Heaven knows, in the current climate the police have no reservoir of public trust and goodwill to draw upon. And yet policemen seem serenely confident they can see off this government too.

Many nations' policing suffers from some or all of these problems, entwined with the nature of the job".

The problems are indeed entwined with the nature of the job: to maintain an unjust and unequal social order, and keep the lid on those who kick back, by way of a hierarchical, closed-off, well-protected corps of enforcers.

A future society will replace the police forced with self-policing in communities by accountable trained volunteers.