Londoners know that 2021 was not a good year for the Metropolitan Police Service. The murder of Sarah Everard in Clapham last March — by a serving officer, as it turned out — was followed by a vigil which the Met heavy-handedly suppressed and dispersed. It was an extraordinary move which missed the public mood by a country mile. That the gathering was in breach of Covid regulations was true but had applied to several other political demonstrations which had been treated with kid gloves.
Criticism soon focused on the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Dame Cressida Dick. In post since 2017, and recently granted a two-year extension to her contract, Dick has had a troubled tenure. She was criticised in a report on a 1987 murder, described as hampering access to information. Often Dick has been her own worst enemy: in the furore following Everard’s murder, the Service suggested that women who feel threatened in public should run away or flag down a bus for assistance.
Only this week, the Metropolitan Police has courted controversy again. It released footage of officers carrying out random drugs tests on members of the public in Shoreditch. As the mayor, Sadiq Khan, begins to preach a message of tolerance for at least possession of Class B drugs, this has seemed out of touch and ill-judged; more significantly, perhaps, many have asked if this should be a priority for scarce police resources.
This is not, however, an issue confined to London. Over New Year’s Eve — or rather Hogmanay — officers of Police Scotland intervened forcefully to restrain revellers and close a Glasgow bar minutes before midnight. Predictably, the combination of police activity and drunken party-goers resulted in physical skirmishes. The police were acting in accordance with the regulations currently holding sway in Scotland, but this was a high-profile tactical mess, and soon spread across social media.
The point of all of these incidents is not that the police were, in absolute terms, wrong. Officers were in general acting to enforce the law. However, anyone with an ounce of sense understands that the law is something which must be applied with common sense and a degree of flexibility: there are no mass arrests of drivers who break the motorway speed limit, or publicans who stay open a minute beyond their licensing hours.
We are proud of saying that police in the United Kingdom carry out their duties by consent. Officers are not habitually armed, and there is almost an inbuilt degree of inefficiency in the fact that England and Wales have 43 separate regional police forces; the reorganisation of the Scottish constabularies into one national force was controversial and has yet to prove itself.
As the pioneers of modern policing in the late eighteenth century, Britons tend to think we are exemplars of effective, democratic, accountable law enforcement. That is a valuable reputation. Political arguments tend to focus on resources, or bureaucracy, or doctrine: but underpinning this all is public confidence. People must believe that the police are broadly well-intentioned, broadly sympathetic and broadly proportionate. Indeed, the lack of that confidence among many ethnic minorities is one of the great blights of modern policing.
If the police start to lose the trust of the general public, and, worse, if they become objects of public derision, the whole basis on which they exercise their powers begins to unravel. People should not fear officers of the law, but if they no longer feel they should do as they ask, then large-scale law enforcement becomes impossible.
This is not a battle in the culture wars. The issue is not the police being too “woke” or “liberal”. Resources and bureaucracy can be fought over. But fundamentally we need to have officers who can make sensible tactical choices at various levels, from the “bobby on the beat” to area commanders. That must come simultaneously from the top and the bottom: effective, inspiring, savvy police leaders, and conscientious, judicious and savvy officers on the ground.
The clock is ticking. In London there is already a crisis in police leadership, and sharp questions are being asked in Edinburgh too. This is a national problem. Politicians must look at public dismay and concern, and devise a comprehensive and sophisticated way to respond. At stake is the whole way in which our society governs itself. Johnson, Sturgeon, Patel, Dick: your move.
Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group