Police In Crisis

Monday, 4 June 2012

A cloud of controversy is hanging over police forces across the country as they face unprecedented change. While deep budget cuts force job losses and dent morale, damaging allegations about corruption and racism surface on an almost monthly basis. The scale of these problems has been played down by police chiefs – but critics are clear the forces are facing a crisis.

Figures published late last month revealed that more than 8,500 allegations about police corruption were recorded by forces in England and Wales between 2008 and 2011. Contained in an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report, the allegations included rape and sexual assault, perverting the course of justice, the provision of false statements, theft, database misuse and fraud. Only 13 police officers were prosecuted and found guilty.

The corruption figures came fresh on the back of recent disclosures about the rising level of racism complaints levelled against the police. Records published earlier this year under the freedom of information act showed an increase by more than 30 per cent in allegations of racism at forces across England and Wales. And if that news wasn’t bad enough for the country’s cops, at the same time, police budgets have been slashed – causing staff shortages and leading to fears about potential privatisation.

“I think we’re facing a crisis in lack of leadership,” says Simon Reed, vice chairman of the Police Federation, an organisation that represents 124,000 police officers in England and Wales. “We do not have leaders in the service who are standing up for the service, responding to these allegations and standing up to the government – that’s the view among the rank and file.”

Reed, a former officer with Bedfordshire Police, accuses the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) of “covering up” how hard forces have been hit by cuts by trying to “put a brave face on it.” He accepts that racism and corruption allegations are serious – but believes that they are being overplayed.

“Our police service is the most scrutinised anywhere in the world,” he says. “We’ve always had allegations, whether it’s racism or corruption, but the actual level is still very low. To put it in perspective, the number of complaints officers get is considerably less than we see made against banks. Banks will get hundreds of thousands of complaints a year.”

Over the three year period between 2008 and 2011, forces in the north had 1400 corruption allegations levelled against them – around 15 per cent of the total across England and Wales. West Yorkshire had the most of the northern forces – at 309 – followed by Greater Manchester (287); Merseyside (267); Lancashire (231); North Yorkshire (141); and South Yorkshire (165). London’s Metropolitan police, Britain’s largest force, came top of the overall list, with 1,487.

The most common allegation in the IPCC’s report – 33 per cent of all that were recorded – involved perverting the course of justice, followed by theft or fraud and abuse of authority. In one case, the chief constable of North Yorkshire police admitted gross misconduct at an internal hearing after “irregularities” were found in the force’s recruitment process. This was the first time in 34 years that a serving chief constable had faced such a hearing. The chief constable and the deputy constable, it emerged, had jointly assisted relatives in circumventing the first stage of a recruitment exercise.

The IPCC says that police corruption is “not endemic” but is “corrosive of the public trust that is at the heart of policing.” Of the 8,500 allegations recorded between 2008 and 2011, just 837 were referred to the IPCC, leaving individual forces to investigate their own officers in the vast majority of cases. The watchdog has vowed to take a more “proactive role” investigating corruption allegations as it has accepted that “the public is understandably doubtful about the extent to which, in this particular instance, the police can investigate themselves.”

Some campaigners, however, believe the IPCC is part of the problem. They claim that because a third of the watchdog's investigators are former police officers, it lacks full independence and the teeth to hand out serious punishments.

Val Swain, a spokesperson for civil liberties group the Network for Police Monitoring, argues structures set up to hold the police to account have “neither the will nor the capacity” to do so.

“The real-life experience of many is that the police are able to act with almost complete impunity,” Swain says. “The IPCC has recognised the need to improve public confidence in the complaints procedure, but it is far from clear how they are going to make the changes necessary to achieve this.

“The number of police officers who are found guilty of misconduct is very low. Of those, most will face nothing more serious than a written warning. Given the lack of sanction, the establishment of a culture of corruption seems almost inevitable.”

Complaints about police accountability over corruption also punctuate the debate about racism. Despite receiving hundreds of racism allegations, the police themselves have dismissed the majority of complaints against them by ruling that they are untrue or cannot be substantiated.

ACPO says a rise in racism complaints in recent years is down to more people now coming forward report alleged abuse. But critics argue racism remains an institutional problem within police forces and is not being tackled efficiently enough.

“Without the action it’s never really going to change,” says Sophie Khan, a solicitor who specialises in cases involving racial discrimination and the police. “90 per cent of my cases have a racist element to it. It happens time and time again, year after year.

“It impacts on a lot of people’s lives the way that they get treated. When they’re walking down the street or in the custody suite – they are treated differently depending on the colour of their skin.”

Uncomfortable issues were raised for police forces after the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. A subsequent report into Lawrence’s death, authored by Sir William Macpherson, accused the Metropolitan Police of being “institutionally racist” over how it had handled the investigation. The report made 70 recommendations, many aimed specifically at improving police attitudes to racism.

But race scandals have continued to dog police forces across the country. In 2003, video footage emerged showing Greater Manchester Police (GMP) trainees and officers using racist language, with one filmed making a Ku Klux Klan-style hood and saying he wanted to “kill” an Asian colleague. Figures released earlier this year showed GMP received 351 racism complaints between 2007 and 2011, the second highest in the country behind the Met.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission says it is “seriously concerned” about allegations of racist police behaviour. “We hoped and believed that this sort of culture had been tackled by all the changes that followed the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry,” said a spokesperson.

Questions around the culture within the police service, though, are not likely to be addressed in the immediate future. Sir Hugh Orde, president of ACPO, has emphasised his priority is to deal with the forces’ financial problems. Police nationwide are facing 20 per cent budget cuts and an expected 16,000 job losses by 2015.

"For the first time officers suddenly feel vulnerable," Orde said in an interview last month, making it clear where his sympathies lie. "There is a sense they feel let down.”

Phone hacking

Issues around police corruption came to the fore last year amid the phone hacking scandal, which sparked concerns about relationships between the police and the media. Corrupt officers had allegedly been receiving illegal payments from journalists in return for handing over sensitive information, in some cases about well known public figures and celebrities.

Following these revelations, in July last year, home secretary Theresa May ordered the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to produce a report on the scale of police corruption. The report, published last month, revealed there had been 8,542 allegations about police corruption made between 2008 and 2011. Of those, 837 were referred to the IPCC.

The majority of the cases referred to the IPCC – 33.1 per cent – were for perverting the course of justice; 30.2 per cent for theft or fraud; 14.6 per cent for abuse of authority; 13.3 per cent for unauthorised disclosure; and 8.8 per cent for perverting the course of justice.

Only 14 officers were dismissed from the police or required to resign after internal disciplinary proceedings. A further 18 officers were charged and prosecuted following IPCC investigations; 13 were found guilty.

Police response

In response to the IPCC’s report into police corruption, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) said: “This report again recognises that corruption is neither endemic nor widespread in the police service. However, the actions of a few corrupt officers can corrode the great work of so many working hard daily to protect the public.”

In response to claims about increased racism in police forces, ACPO said: “Police officers have thousands of interactions with members of the public each day and most end well. Since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report, both the satisfaction with the police among black and minority ethnic communities, and their willingness to come forward and complain when things go wrong has risen.”

This article first appeared in issue no.930 of The Big Issue in the North.