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Comment: a victim of city hall politics?

Sir Tom Winsor’s detailed report has highlighted the flaws in the accountability model for local policing in London

The 116-page report into the series of events that led to the “constructive dismissal” of Cressida Dick is a good read if you are interested in a forensic account of the endless meetings and carefully worded statements that have to take place in order to manage the accountability gap between the Home Secretary, London’s Mayor and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

But whether you believe she stepped down due to failings of leadership or was a victim of City Hall politics what the report highlights is that the current arrangements have proved to be unworkable.

They are a fudge brought about by the Met’s size, unique position as the holder of national policing responsibilities and London’s economic, political and media dominance of the UK.

If the Mayor sets the budget for the force, holds its leadership accountable for the service it provides to Londoners but can’t sack the Commissioner, then what is the point of having a Mayor? And if the mayor can’t sack a commissioner why should the Home Secretary have that power given the current one has no mandate from London’s electorate?

It is easy to draw parallels here with City Hall arrangements in the US. The head of the NYPD for example is entirely a political appointment. Bill Bratton was brought in by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994 who had campaigned and won office on a hard right law enforcement ticket.

Even if you don’t believe the hype about the ‘broken windows’ approach that followed, local policing  took precedent over everything else and the relationship between the Mayor and his commissioner in terms of expected outcomes was clear enough.

New York and London share some policing challenges  -  a historic distrust of law enforcement by large black communities would be one example. But there the similarities end. The Met is a massive undertaking by any organisational yard stick and is subject to constant competing and conflicting external demand.

The drain on its resources from demonstrations and marches, sporting and other events, serious and organised crime, counter terrorism and the protection of political landmarks and critical infrastructure is significant and unique. Given that and the size of the MPD, providing an acceptable level of response policing is a daily challenge.

Years of tinkering with the borough command structure have solved none of the issues associated with local, accountable policing in a city this size. In London what is local policing now anyway? The capital has long been a conglomerate of different communities who live cheek by jowl and the make-up of neighbourhoods is in a constant state of flux.

It would be hard to get consensus on something as basic as stop and search let alone the more complex needs of people who often live across the street from one another but exist at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. Having officers who live locally and have that extra “buy in” is desirable but unlikely partly due to the yo-yoing recruitment residency requirements for the Met but mainly the unaffordability of decent housing in most boroughs.

These issues are long standing and for a commissioner serving in any era, an incident that sparks criticism of the service that has national repercussions, is an expectation rather than a fear.

For Cressida Dick that incident was Wayne Couzens’ abduction and murder of Sarah Everard. This dreadful crime is now often mentioned by the Met’s fiercest critics in the same sentence as the police WhatsApp messages uncovered by the Operation Hotton inquiry into a now disbanded unit based at Charing Cross Station. Indeed it is clear from Sir Tom Winsor’s review of the commissioner’s demise that the Mayor lumped these and other events together in his final charge sheet of alleged mismanagement by the UK’s first female commissioner.

Yet it is ridiculous to suggest that the actions of a homicidal maniac and offensive messages exchanged between officers on a social media chat group are two sides of the same coin. We will have to wait for the Baroness Casey review to find out whether there are wider vetting issues that need to be addressed or problems within specific specialist units of the Met that require specialism such as AFO capacity. The queue to find another convenient stick to beat the force with is disproportionate. 

For the new Commissioner what does “restoring public trust ” mean exactly? He can provide no guarantee that will safeguard the good conduct of 30,000 individuals. As a former human rights lawyer Mayor Khan's alleged instruction to the commissioner to just get rid of any officer 'tainted' by the nine separate investigations that merged into Hotton would be naive to say the least. This is true of every force in the country and other professions such as teaching or politics.   

A case could be argued for breaking up the Met into a smaller more manageable police force that is more accountable to specific local needs. In order to do this its national responsibilities such as Counter Terrorism and diplomatic and royalty protection would need to be hived off and absorbed by other agencies such as the NCA or through alternative arrangements. Meanwhile, mutual aid for pre-planned events such as the recent G7 and COP26 summits have worked perfectly well. This could be extended to police well advertised and very draining public order events such as the series of Extinction Rebellion protests that were mainly focused on London and lasted months. So too the anti vax and various lockdown protests that were almost a weekly issue for the MPS for nearly two years. 

A flurry of other reports and reviews are due before the end of this year. Further tinkering around the edges will not wash.

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