Scandal-hit Met signals a bigger problem within the UK police force

During her 31 years as a police officer, Sue Fish encountered misogyny time and time again. When she was an inspector, she said she was indecently assaulted by an older colleague. As deputy police chief, she received “unwelcome advances” from a “very, very senior person” from another force.

Her experience underscores what many people with knowledge of the situation describe as a pervasive problem with culture in parts of UK policing.

scandals London’s Metropolitan Police over the past year has dominated reporting on Britain’s problems with officer behavior. The most serious of these was the murder in March of last year Sarah Everharda 33-year-old woman, by Wayne Couzens, a serving Met officer.

Nonetheless, Fish has spent most of her career outside of London. “It’s not a London-centric issue,” said Fish, who has researched women’s experiences in law enforcement since retiring. “It’s a British police problem.”

In the past six months, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the body responsible for monitoring complaints against the police, has closed cases against 14 officers serving in England and Wales outside London, compared to four by the Met.

Flowery tributes in memory of Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in south London © Andy Rain/EPA/Shutterstock

A typical IOPC case involved a Leicestershire Police officer who was found in November abused his position establishing sexual relationships with two women he had met through his duties. He had had “inappropriate contact” with a third party.

Michael Lockwood, director-general of the IOPC, said recent revelations about policing culture had “have had a toxic impact on confidence in policing. It’s obvious these aren’t one-off incidents and it’s not a “bad apple,”” Lockwood said.

However, poor documentation of incidents has made it difficult to identify “hotspots” that face particularly tough challenges. The 14 closed IOPC cases outside the Met over the past six months have involved 14 different forces.

Louise Westmarland, an Open University academic who has studied issues of police behavior for 20 years, said differing attitudes towards officer misconduct at different forces have prevented her from quantifying where the problems are most acute.

“It’s all about police culture,” she said. “Culture is something that cannot be touched, cannot be defined, cannot be proved. It’s so slippery.”

Fish spent most of her career with Nottinghamshire Police in the East Midlands of England. While there, she made efforts to “lift the rock” on the covert issue of officer misconduct, but the efforts had stirred up significant resentment.

“As we raised the rock, we asked ourselves, ‘Why are you doing this and sending people to jail for having sex with vulnerable crime victims?'” Fish said. “[We replied]’Because that’s wrong’.

“Firing people for sending obscene material to younger members of their shift for free? That didn’t seem unreasonable to me,” she remarked.

Michael Lockwood is particularly concerned about a form of misconduct called “abuse of position for sexual purposes” © Anna Gordon/FT

Westmarland’s research examined the complex factors that drive officers to speak up or remain silent. Officers in smaller forces were more likely to report misconduct by fellow officers because their teams felt more like family, she noted.

There has also been a “massive shift” in attitudes towards drink driving in recent years, which officers say are far more willing to report to supervisors than other types of wrongdoing. Officials were also willing to comment on abusive smartphone messaging.

But officers were far less willing to log sexual misconduct. “If someone in the office talks about going back to a victim of a domestic violence incident quite inappropriately, that’s not really a problem [to fellow officers]’ remarked Westmarland.

She added that in some cases officials have developed strong relationships through their work.

Lockwood said he was particularly concerned about a form of misconduct called “abuse of position for sexual purposes” (APSP). The offense includes any conduct by a police officer or law enforcement officers that takes advantage of their role to “engage in a sexual or inappropriate emotional relationship with a member of the public.”

Of the 14 non-London IOPC cases over the past six months, four involved excessive use of force, while a further eight involved either APSP or inappropriate, sexualised contact with a crime victim or witness.

“Essentially, this is gross corruption,” Lockwood said. “You can imagine the police using this power to have a massive impact on people’s lives – many of them are vulnerable.”

Lockwood declined to point fingers at individual powers. “I’m not going to say one force is better than another,” he said. But some armed forces have long-standing records of poor performance, he added.

The Cleveland Constabulary received a series of poor ratings in a scathing report during the latest round of full police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy inspections by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services in 2019. An inspection report in March, Greater Manchester Police gave the force the two lowest ratings – insufficient and in need of improvement – on eight out of nine performance measurements.

Cleveland Police Department: “Improvements are being seen in many key areas and we are committed to building on those improvements” © Peter Jordan/Alamy

The Cleveland Police Department said it has embarked on a “long-term change plan.”

“There are improvements in many key areas and we are committed to building on those improvements going forward,” it said.

Following the March report, Greater Manchester Police said their findings were already out of date due to progress made following a visit by inspectors last September.

The Metropolitan Police said they realized a “real change” was needed in the force.

“We are committed to creating an environment that is even more intolerant of those who fail to uphold the high values ​​and standards that are expected of us,” it said.

Despite the progress, Lockwood stressed the need for far-reaching, systematic change. He called for clearer, more resolute leadership that would support officers to speak up when they see unacceptable behavior.

Fish, meanwhile, recalled what happened when she asked female officers to reach out to her with stories of abuse by other officers.

Reports came from every corner, she said. “I could say that the officers who have contacted me are from Forces A, B, C and D. . . but the others have an equally big problem or they didn’t pick up some of the stones.” Scandal-hit Met signals a bigger problem within the UK police force

Adam Bradshaw

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