As Met Commissioner Cressida Dick loses her job due to a series of sexism scandals in the nation’s largest police force, Ellie Cornish explains in a blog post why now is the time for a full statutory inquiry into the British police culture.
The past year has seen a seemingly endless stream of reporting on police misogyny, racism and harmful behavior: a litany of scandals that led to Met Commissioner Cressida Dick losing her job.
From the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by firearms officer Wayne Couzens last March to the IOPC Fund’s recent report into lewd and discriminatory behavior at Charing Cross police station, barely a month has passed without a new police report of unacceptable conduct.
In some cases, officers have attempted to justify their actions by claiming that they are part of a culture of permissive “bantering”. This, coupled with the frequency and severity of these incidents, makes a compelling case for a complete overhaul of police culture.
It is time for a statutory public inquiry into the police culture of this country.
Twelve months of shame
In addition to the Couzens and Charing Cross cases mentioned above, the last twelve months have seen:
– Met police officers Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis jailed for sending photos of murdered sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman to colleagues and calling them ‘dead birds’.
– Avon and Somerset police officer Daniel Wallwork sacked for sharing a photo of a dead woman with a colleague.
– The Met was forced to apologize to philosophy professor Koshka Duff for using ‘sexist, derogatory and unacceptable’ behavior during a strip search, only after the incident was captured on CCTV .
– Met officer David Carrick has been charged with 29 offenses involving eight women, including 13 counts of rape.
– Met Detective James Mason breached professional standards by sexually harassing assault victim Kristina O’Connor.
The “chatter” defense
The IOPC’s recent Operation Hotton report on misogyny, racism, homophobia and harassment at Charing Cross Police Station found that behavior seen by officers as “joking” included:
- Messages about attending a festival dressed as sex offenders and an assaulted child
- Messages such as “You’re a fucking gay!” and “Fuck you bender”
- Messages such as “I would rape you with pleasure”, and “If I were single, I would chloroform you with pleasure”.
The IOPC Fund reported that when victims of these types of communications challenged perpetrators about their experiences “there appeared to be attempts made to push any comments or behavior into a ‘grey area'”.
The report went on to conclude that “this meant that whatever happened in this area was reduced to banter, or a joke or a game, or it was just a misunderstanding”.
We need to be clear as a society that this “joking” (so often preceded by the word “harmless” or “friendly”) is unacceptable. It is bullying that normalizes, and therefore excuses, attitudes that in turn lead to harmful practices.
That such attitudes can exist in an organization tasked with preventing and detecting crime on behalf of all, regardless of gender, should be enough to trigger immediate organizational change, as its implications for female suspects and victims of crime are obvious.
‘nothing new here‘
Of course, the existence of this kind of attitude among the police is not new.
One difference between today and the “bad old days” of the 1970s, however, is that these opinions are often voiced on social media, where they can be recorded.
Unlike a comment made in a police station canteen or in the pub, text messages, WhatsApp chats, Facebook messages and the like are recordable and can be used as evidence.
A legal public inquiry
I agree with the Center for Women’s Justice and the Women’s Equality Party Government that the Government should establish a statutory public inquiry into the British police. The vehicle for this already exists, in the Sarah Everard Inquiry, which could be converted into a full statutory public inquiry by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Patel hasn’t ruled out launching a “big inquiry” into policing, along the lines of one that looked at institutional racism in policing and the death of Stephen Lawrence. However, she said she wanted to “find out what’s happening on earth” through a series of existing smaller surveys before deciding what to do next.
This is not good enough.
The public interest in holding a full statutory public inquiry could not be greater nor the need more urgent. Women make up more than half of the population and they cannot trust the institutions that treat them with such contempt, whether they are victims of crime or suspects.
A statutory public inquiry would allow interest groups to obtain principal participant status and access to important information, in order to assert their expertise and submit observations. Sarah Everard’s family would be entitled to legal representation, if they wished. The Met has shown, for example, in Daniel Morgan’s non-statutory investigation, that they cannot simply be expected to voluntarily provide full cooperation and candor. A statutory public inquiry would provide the necessary powers to compel witnesses and gather relevant evidence.
Police failures have been so numerous and significant over the past year that the Met’s ‘rotten apple’ defense deployed in the Couzens case does not hold water.
In my opinion, as a lawyer who specializes in holding the police accountable for the misconduct of their officers, only a statutory public inquiry would fully expose the systemic problems of the UK police and establish lasting means of addressing them, at the benefit of all.