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Special measures: justified or more ‘collective smearing’ of front-line?

Former Met Special Branch officer Chris Hobbs gives his view of a new low point in the Met's long history

The footage was dramatic; it showed Met officers arriving at the scene of a fire in Camden before the fire brigade and racing into a blazing building, concerned that members of the public could be trapped inside. Days later, Southall and flames that were clearly visible as Met officers scrambled over a fence, concerned again that persons could be trapped.

A third incident in Walthamstow, wasn’t captured on film but again concerned police entering a burning building. Perhaps a more familiar sight is one of officers racing to stabbings and shootings, now an all- too- common feature of life on London’s streets. They will frequently arrive before paramedics and render life-saving first aid in addition to dealing with any threat present and arresting suspects. Very often they are greeted with a scene that is horrendous and officers have to deal with the impact these scenes may have on their well-being and mental health. Just days ago, a Met officer was lucky to escape serious injury when he was stabbed in the neck.

It's not just violent crime that occupies London’s officers. The Met responds to 40,000 calls relating to mental health every year. According to a vastly experienced mental health nurse who is a friend of mine and acts as a point of contact for police, those officers display kindness, compassion and professionalism dealing with difficult incidents which can last for many hours. In some cases, the Met literally save lives by physically pulling the suicidal back from the brink.

These of course, are the officers now collectively smeared by politicians, the media and activists as misogynistic, racist, homophobic, corrupt rotten apples. Recent comments by London’s Mayor have only added to the despair and anger of officers at the sharp end of London’s policing who believe that such constant denigration is not only unfair but places them at even greater risk from attack.

The mysterious leaked ‘special measures’ letter.

The latest misfortune to overtake the Met is the mysterious leaked letter from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Service, (HMICFRS) which informs the hierarchy of the Met that the force (service) is being placed into special measures. Whilst, personally, I had a lot of time for Cressida Dick who cared passionately about her workforce, there must surely be question marks against many, but not all, of her senior team. It’s interesting that a force, or the male section of it, described as misogynistic and homophobic, was apoplectic with fury at the Mayor’s ‘constructive dismissal’ of their gay, female Commissioner.

Interestingly, when describing the Met’s transgressions, the letter appears to makes no reference to its former head, Sir Tom Winsor, recently telling the Home Affairs Select Committee that only 20% of police time is devoted to crime. Perhaps the report, if there is one, will refer to it; after all it surely is of some relevance

Herein lies one major problem; the huge levels of demand placed upon the Met outstrips the ability to satisfy that demand. The second problem, as indicated above, is the ability or lack of it shown by some at the higher echelons of the Met.

When I was a young PC, the London Borough of Ealing was policed by two divisions; Southall and Ealing each with its own Chief Superintendent. Between us, the populace of Ealing could rely on at least 17 and normally over 20 vehicles responding to both urgent and non-urgent calls during an eight- hour shift. Now, there are a mere seven vehicles or so on patrol ready to respond to emergencies while across London, response officers complain that there can be as little as one vehicle covering an entire borough.

Previous requirements, that there should be a ‘minimum strength’ in terms of response officers to ensure their safety and a reasonable service to the public, appear to have fallen by the wayside, not only in London but across the country, Those, officers can then find themselves spending huge swathes of time dealing with those suffering a mental health crisis or, with the improvement in forensics, standing on police cordons around crime scenes for hours and perhaps days. To add insult to injury, Met response officers are also now being given crimes to investigate despite the huge challenges they already face on a daily basis whilst working early, late and night shifts; a situation which is unfair upon both the officers and the victims.

Barely a month goes past without there being a report from an august body that ‘police must do more;’ Just days ago the same HMICFRS reported that police must do more to tackle fraud. Fraud can now be added to the ‘must do more list’ which includes domestic violence, sexual offences, grooming gangs, stalking, harassment, shoplifting, missing persons, county lining, moped crime, rural crime, hate crime, burglary, catalytic converter theft, management of offenders, knife crime, gangs and anti-social behaviour. Little wonder that the response side of policing has been denuded of officers as the jam is spread ever more thinly.

But what of the scandals that have struck the Met and, once again, sent most sections into a feeding frenzy.

Wayne Couzens

Word that a serving police officer was responsible for the savage murder of Sarah Everard, spread through a horrified police community before any official announcement. Couzens was employed by two other forces before the Met and thousands of similar transfers take place with the main focus being on the officer’s personal and discipline record. It’s deemed unnecessary for a thorough vetting process to take place. That may now change.

The question as to whether colleagues of Couzens should have been alerted by his behaviour or chose to ignore it is under investigation. It could be that they simply regarded him as being ‘a bit of a prat,’ and indeed had they raised the alarm and if Couzens had been forced out, would that have stopped him committing this or a similar murderous act?. The warrant card was a useful ‘tool’ but fakes are easily reproduced and indeed it woudn’t have been difficult for him to have overpowered an unsuspecting victim without the production of a warrant card.

Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman

The officers involved in taking photographs of the murdered sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman are regarded with withering contempt throughout the police service. Met detectives, did however secure the convictions of those responsible for the murders of Sarah, Bibaa and Nicole and indeed those officers responsible for their vile actions.

Charing Cross

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) report in relation to the appalling behaviour of a unit within Charing Cross police station resulted in a three-year investigation. The IOPC suggested that poor behaviour was rampant throughout the building. There was nothing in their report which indicated how they came to this conclusion given that around 800 officers populate the station and over a three- year period this number could be around 1,000. Did the IOPC conduct hundreds of interviews, receive numerous ‘tips’ from anonymous officers, conduct a ‘paper’ survey or were there isolated comments/complaints which the IOPC investigators interpreted as the norm? Surely such damaging accusations against an entire station and by default the entire Met, should have warranted a mention in relation to the means/methodology by which the conclusion was reached.

So just how bad is it?

During my 32 years in the Met, I worked with hundreds of officers. Amongst those hundreds were around 40 individuals who I regarded as unpleasant for a variety of reasons and who I would have preferred not to be in possession of a warrant card. Yet, aside from the those 40 or so, the remaining hundreds were, quite simply good, caring people who did their best.

Baroness Casey is, on behalf of the Met, conducting an inquiry into the supposed ‘toxic culture’ and I’m sure if she posed the question to serving and retired female officers as to whether they had ever encountered some form of misogynistic behaviour at any time, the answer would, from the majority, be yes.

Conversely, if the question was posed to female officers asking whether the overwhelming majority of male colleagues were both professional and respectful and could be trusted, the response will hopefully, paint a totally different picture.

I could, from, my 32 years, use isolated incidents to portray my time in the Met as a living nightmare. This would especially apply to my final year, yet to do so, whilst giving ammunition to those who loathe police, would never-the-less be a total distortion of my career, which was, for the most part, hugely enjoyable and one which I can look back on with pride and satisfaction. Alas, the broadcasting media normally extend their invitations to those who they know have an axe to grind; however, I was able to get some points across courtesy of GB News as the ‘special measures’ story gained momentum. 

Stephen Port

An examination of the coroner’s lengthy summing up, which took more than three hours to peruse, showed a litany of blunders. During this time, the Met’s CID was beginning to struggle, in part as the result of the cutbacks which had now begun to bite. Investigations into the tragic deaths of Port’s victims were handled by inexperienced local CID officers. Attempts to hand investigations over to the Met’s hard-pressed murder squads initially failed. Interestingly, at around this time, a friend of mine, arguably one of most talented, detective sergeants in the Met, resigned after 27 years due to the ludicrous demands placed upon him and his inexperienced team.

On the positive side, the Met’s critics should remember that the homicide teams still solve around 8 out of 10 murders; that number was 9 out of 10 before cuts hit even those elite units. A number of these murders are complex with few obvious clues, yet outstanding detective work produces a positive result. Race, colour, sexual orientation or religion are not a factor.

Stop and search

The HMICFRS recently issued a report concerning stop and search nationally, but was clearly focussed on the Met with the main issue being one of ‘disproportionality’ in terms of the black community being unfairly targeted. No discussion of the disproportionate number of young black men murdered on our streets or those identified as perpetrators as even figures produced by the Mayor’s office will confirm. As for the accurate recording of reasonable grounds for stop and search, I thought 75% was a remarkably high figure. Stop and search frequently attracts, at best, curious onlookers and at worst a hostile crowd. The individual being searched is often truculent and resentful and now, with handcuffing rarely an option, officers are also concerned as to their own safety.

In addition, other urgent calls may demand their attention; Targets in respect of ‘I’ and ‘S’ calls have to be met. Little wonder that accurate recording may suffer. Most calls dealt with by response officers will require some sort of record being made and again, given the pressures, some will fall through the cracks. Perhaps a secretary sitting in the back of each response vehicle could be a solution!!

Linked to the issue of stop and search is the controversy surrounding the strip search of Child ‘Q.’ The one report thus far published leaves many questions unanswered but concludes that racial bias played a part. Whilst all acknowledge that the search should not have taken place in the way that it did, is it not possible that safeguarding considerations were the primary concern of the officers involved rather than racism?

With the controversial strip search of child ‘Olivia.’ Is transpires that the search only took place after police discovered that the girl had previously ‘self-harmed.’ The search apparently revealed potentially injurious implements. A third child ‘strip search’ reportedly resulted in that child being charged with drugs supply.

Gross misconduct proceedings against the officers involved in the search of Child ‘Q’and indeed the TSG officers who were involved in the stop/ search of the athletes could result in all officers losing their jobs. One possible consequence could be that front line officers would take a huge step back from all contentious searches and the potential results of this scenario do not bear thinking about.

Unrecorded Crime

The HMICFRS also refer to significant numbers of unrecorded crime but fail to specify, at least in the letter, how this figure is reached. Is it officers on the streets who fail to record the crime? is it crimes reported by phone or online which are not recorded as such? How do they reach these conclusions? Do they dip sample CAD (incident) logs and see if they have been resulted as a crime? They also refer to anti-social behaviour not being reported as crime. Not all anti-social behaviour is crime and it can be a fine line as to when the ‘crime threshold’ is reached. Perhaps more will be explained in their ‘special measure’ report, if there is one, but after their lamentable stop and search review, that remains to be seen.

Child abuse ignored

The backlog of child abuse concerns is worrying, but again, Met safeguarding units who deal with a wide variety of issues are over-loaded with cases and referrals. To some officers, safeguarding is a vocation, to others the stress, the workload, the emotional toll and the ever- present risk of crucial issues falling through the cracks leading to tragedy means that a posting to such a unit is to be avoided at all costs.

In respect of child abuse, as with mental health, the situation is exacerbated by past cutbacks and a lack of experienced social workers. It’ll be interesting to see whether these cases of ‘ignored’ child abuse include county lining as referred to above. Certainly, the controversies referred to can only encourage the enhanced recruitment of girls by those running county lines gangs on the grounds that they are even less likely to be searched than previously.

It's also worth noting that a 2019 report by the Children’s Commissioner stated that 27,000 children were vulnerable to ‘gang exploitation’ and who had not been identified by social services. That situation has almost certainly worsened since that report.

Who’d be a call handler?

Criticism also includes the handling of 999 calls; the fact that they are not being answered within the required times and that they are not being dealt with correctly; the Met handle more than two-million 999 calls a year. Interesting that in 2020, HMICFRS reported that police were in danger of being ‘overwhelmed’ by 999 calls. 101 calls by the hundred thousand are also resource intensive and it’s clear that call handlers are under huge pressure.  Perhaps, the letter and subsequent report will recommend solutions. Perhaps, someone will recommend the restoration of local borough policing, police station closures permitting and then the restoration of local police switchboards or CAD rooms where there used to be a rapid connection between members of the public and their local police. Perhaps, but unlikely.

The vigil

It is interesting that included in just about every media report relating to this ‘leaked letter’ but not in the actual letter itself, is reference to the Sarah Everard vigil. That is perhaps, because the HMICFRS report on the police handling of that vigil virtually exonerated the Met. The action of officers at the vigil is thrown into the faces of the Met whenever there is controversy and criticism. There is little reference to the accurate video timeline footage by a well- known individual who can hardly be described as being a fervent supporter of UK policing. Sky News also provided a less detailed but reasonably accurate timeline. Both accounts were verified by truly independent journalists who were present on the night. The police were, quite simply, not the villains here. 

Contempt

Whilst the media now highlight every police transgression which ends in a ‘guilty’ verdict at a subsequent misconduct hearing, there have always been such hearings and always been dismissals and those who were ‘required to resign.’ Every Friday, ‘Police Orders’ were delivered to police stations and buildings across London and by the end the day, the section on ‘dismissals and resignations’ would always be ‘well-thumbed’ and ‘dog-eared.’

The question in respect of all rogue officers is whether they evaded the recruitment, vetting and training which should have eliminated the unsuitable and how such procedures can be improved. Inevitably however, as with any profession be it the NHS, teachers, the clergy and politicians, some will evade scrutiny.

Another, as yet unanswered question, is whether witnessing the potential horrors involved in policing on an all too frequent basis together with the ever- present threat of violence, changes the attitude, personality and mental state of some individual officers which in turn results in woefully inappropriate behaviour such as that illustrated above. Perhaps the HMICFRS, will, in its infinite wisdom suggest that a study is made in relation to the above.

In the meantime, the HMICFRS may wish to consider that by contributing to the perception that the Met and more importantly, its officers, are rotten to the core, they, with the assistance of the Mayor, much of the media, and activists, have increased the size of targets on the backs of those officers and made them even more vulnerable to abuse and attack.

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