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‘Banter’ and hate speak: inside Operation Hotton

Police Oracle talks to the IOPC investigator who led a major inquiry into a 'toxic' culture at a London police station

There may be officers who have yet to be persuaded that some of the stuff to emerge from the IOPC’s long running inquiry into what went on at Charing Cross Police Station was something far worse than a type of extremely off-colour banter between consenting adults who were also colleagues.

But can the social media posts “I would happily rape you” or “I would happily hate fuck you” ever be considered as banter? The IOPC regional lead who led the linked investigations is unequivocal on this point.

He says the officers who came forward to report bullying and harassment perpetrated by a group of other officers were the recipients of those messages and felt physically frightened by them.

“These victims came forward and they were afraid,” Sal Naseem told Police Oracle. “They were working in an environment where they didn’t feel safe. Never mind just being bullied  - they didn’t feel safe.

“Even if this were an exchange of so-called banter between a group of officers who considered themselves comrades and friends does it make it any less worse?”

When he was compiling the report at the end of the investigation Naseem said he thought about compiling a list or breakdown of the different type of offensive comments uncovered but he quickly realised they covered everything; misogyny, racism, homophobia, comments about disabled people, the list goes on.

“if you are not white and male these officers hated you,” says Naseem.

Thousands of messages were reviewed during the long investigation and the difficult read that is the Hotton Inquiry review does not contain all of the most offensive he says.

The irony is that the inquiry started because of an allegation of misconduct that an officer had sex with a member of the public at a police station. This was never substantiated but it led to other allegations which prompted the IOPC to work with the Met’s Department of Professional Standards to launch an internal witness appeal around wider issues of concern they had uncovered.

“I have read the personal accounts and the impact this has had on the individuals concerned,” says Naseem. “It revealed a very ugly side of canteen culture with victims who are serving officers.

“For them to come forward in this sort of toxic environment took bravery and moral courage. One of the hopes we have in putting this out into the public domain is that other officers who are suffering within a police force from this sort of behaviour will feel they can come forward and things can change.”

Sine the report was published this week it has triggered a debate in the service and among ministers and MPs about the lack of supervision and leadership within the Met and in policing generally.

The officers involved in the investigation were up to the rank of sergeant but none have been named  -  not even the two worst perpetrators who were sacked after the independent chairs at their misconduct tribunals decided they couldn’t be identifed publicly.

Some critics would say that is another case of a police force washing its dirty laundry in private but there are wider issues at stake according to the IOPC.

“The two worst perpetrators were the officers who were dismissed for gross misconduct,” says Sal Nassem. “The more extreme WhatsApp messages were shared in smaller groups but other messages were shared in larger groups and these officers felt safe to do so.”

There was one example of extreme message sharing in a group of 17 officers and nobody challenged it he adds.

The IOPC also points out that the two worst offenders were not the only ones to blame -  a total of 14 were investigated for possible misconduct and the majority faced some form of sanction.

So was this a problem attached to a particular station or specific unit  - given that not even the precise nature of the work undertaken by the group of officers involved has been disclosed in order to protect the identities of the witnesses?

Operation Hotton comprised nine separate but linked investigations completed over a two-year period. The last disciplinary process was completed last September.

The IOPC has made 15 recommendations using its legal powers to do so asking for the Met to change its ways.

Sal Naseem says the public don’t really know what a ‘toxic culture’ within the police looks like because they do not have the perspective or experience of a female or minority officer on the receiving end of the behaviour.

“it was important for us to show how ugly it can be and it is not an isolated example, “ he says. “We see this sort of conduct appearing in investigations not only within the Met but in other forces across the country.”

The director general of the IOPC wrote to the NPCC last April expressing specific concerns about police WhatsApp groups.

This is based on the worry that misogyny, racism and other sources of discrimination have been driven underground within the service and onto closed social media platforms involving certain individuals.

“We don’t know what we don’t know but the things we see are at the extreme ends of the spectrum,” says Naseem. “Generally the behaviour we are looking at is not overt. It has been transferred onto social media groups where officers feel they are psychologically safe in indulging in some of the worst sort of comments."

He also says the term ‘banter’ should be looked upon as a red flag for something that could be far worse. “Nobody is denying that police officers are doing a difficult job often in very difficult circumstances but the two officers who were the worst perpetrators in Operation Hotton dismissed the allegations that were put to them as simply banter. In the modern police service that just doesn’t wash.”

He says that there is also a danger that officers with those views ‘speak to the culture of the service’ because they feel safe and secure to say those things.

“It is simply not an issue of them not understanding rules and policies because the Police Code of Ethics is crystal clear that this behaviour has no place in policing yet we see multiple examples of officers doing exactly that,” he adds.

The other strand to that is officers who don’t make these comments but are also members of large internal WhatsApp groups and don’t say anything to challenge it.

There is an obligation to report discreditable conduct within the code of ethics but why don’t more officers do so?

“Is it because they accept it or don’t feel safe putting their head above the parapet?” says Naseem. In Operation Hotton the IOPC says that fear was a ‘legitimate concern’ for all the witnesses and victims. This included physical fear for their safety and other forms of intimidation.

“The perpetrators were abusing their power,” says Naseem. “They felt comfortable expressing the worst kind of content you could think of. The more interesting question is how can policing create a culture where this is routinely challenged?”

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