Plebgate: police owe loyalty to community, not their tribe
As three chief constables go before MPs, there's only one way to stop 'bad apple' cops - punish them in court
TODAY is a big day for police/public relations, even by the standards of the recent past. Three chief constables go before the Commons Home Affairs select committee. Their task will be to explain why the officers who met Andrew Mitchell over 'plebgate' and then lied about the meeting were not disciplined.
It is the apparent immunity to the consequences of police wrong-doing that most infuriates civilians who face the sack if they similarly misbehave.
We have heard, as ever when police run foul of the standards they are expected to uphold, the normal excuses and promises. I have been writing about the police since the late 1960s and have heard tell of more bad apples than would be found in a season of windfalls in a cider orchard.
Bad apples should, of course, be discarded, but we tend to forget that they are highly infectious. Failure to spot even one soon contaminates the barrel.
In half a century of debate and concern, the words ‘police culture’ have peppered the argument. Yet again, Damian Green, the police minister, assured us on Sunday that reforms are in hand to change this culture. We shall see: the roots that sustain the culture run deep.
The first thing to understand about the police is that they are a tribe. And, as with all tribes, their loyalties are foremost to each other. Police cover-ups are invariably motivated by the desire of officers at all levels to protect their own.
Police bond together as do no other group of fellow workers (except, perhaps the military, and we have seen troubling signs of cover-ups in investigations into army malpractice in recent conflicts).
Officers spend hours cooped up together, sitting in police cars in the dead hours before dawn, chewing the cud in the police canteen. If harmony is to be achieved, then common attitudes have to be arrived at.
While I was reporting from a London police division, the then Met Commissioner promulgated a code of conduct and practice. It was produced in the form of a blue covered booklet which proved just the right size to wedge under wobbly canteen table legs. I don’t recall ever seeing an officer reading the booklet. At the same time, a single sheet edict was pinned to the canteen darts board and used for target practice.
Even the lowest civilian ‘toe rag’ - the vulnerable and dispossessed at the bottom of the human food chain -was scarcely as despised as many of the senior officers (‘them upstairs’) who – especially if they didn’t have a track record of hard-nosed policing – were endlessly bad-mouthed as the fry-ups and brew-ups were swallowed.
When police behaved badly, even in small ways like being rude to members of the public, excuses were found. The officer concerned may have had a bad day; been to the scene of a terrible road crash; had a blazing row with his wife. Imagine such excuses for rudeness being put forward on behalf of a hotel receptionist.
Although officers don’t live cheek-by-jowl in police housing as frequently as they did, the shift system and the camaraderie bind them. They play golf together; eat out as couples; holiday together. This is understandable among colleagues, but it does reinforce the tribe and emphasise the gulf between them and non-police.
What can be done? Even in civilian organisations – as we have recently seen in care homes – whistle-blowing often leads to personal grief. We will know soon (or, rather, we hope we will know) what happened in Downing Street a year ago when the then Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell tried to ride his bike through the gates. But I will be surprised if the truth emerges because an officer has broken ranks and blown the whistle on his colleagues.
Damian Green’s proposed reforms sound sensible. Yet, despite many such ‘sensible’ policies down the years, police malpractice persists and the force’s stock continues to fall.
Introducing an officer class – direct entry at senior levels – will make not one iota of difference. Such men and women will suffer even greater canteen abuse and disregard than existing senior officers receive. Without scars from the front line, they will be dismissed as bureaucratic irrelevancies, and they will cut little ice with fellow senior officers who have risen through the ranks.
Strengthening the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) must be good. However, police watchdogs have, hitherto, been held in lower tribal esteem than even pen-pushing senior officers, so I won’t hold my breath for a change in the culture.
The answer has to be high-profile and appropriately severe consequences for officers who transgress – preferably administered by the courts. When the wages of police malpractice outweigh the warm solidarity of the canteen, police officers might finally recognise that their loyalty is owed first and foremost to the wider community and not merely to the tribe.
Robert Chesshyre is the author of ‘The Force: Inside the Police’. ·