The police are facing a major crisis, caught between endless revelations about cover-ups and injustice, as well as government cuts. Matt Foot looks at the turmoil in a once monolithic arm of the state.
No one could have predicted that an altercation between a police officer and a cabinet member wheeling his bike out of Downing Street would cement the biggest crisis in the police since 1919.
Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell was disgraced and consigned to the back benches until the police version of events imploded.
The diplomatic protection unit police officer, Keith Wallis, wrote to his MP confirming he witnessed the event from Whitehall. There was a slight problem with his account however — CCTV footage showed he wasn’t there at all.
Wallis subsequently gave an amusing police interview before he was carted off to jail, “I one percent convinced myself I was there. I visualised myself standing there... I thought in a strange way I was backing up my colleagues. I wasn’t. I was doing the wrong thing and it’s all exploded.”
The behaviour of three West Midlands police federation officers, however, was to have more serious ramifications.
While Mitchell was an outcast, and officers protested against government cuts to the service wearing “Pleb” t-shirts, the three officers visited the Tory MP’s home to expose him to an assembled media outside as having “nothing to say” about the incident.
Unfortunately for the them Mitchell taped the meeting. The tape confirmed he had in fact given a very full account and so instead the three hapless officers found themselves having to account to parliament where rather ironically they were less than forthcoming in their answers.
The attempt by the police to make capital out of the Mitchell case and stop government cuts backfired spectacularly. Home secretary Theresa May seized the initiative to enforce the cuts and even called for reform of the Police Federation.
The federation was established in 1919 following a deal to end a police strike. The 1919 Police Act ensured a strike ban for the police. But whereas the officers on strike were not let back into the force, the Police Federation was given special treatment by governments over the century that followed.
That has all changed. As Vikram Dodd put it recently in the Guardian: “The organisation was once feared by government, chief constables, and the media. It isn’t any more. It has been weakened by infighting... and its reputation shredded by a series of controversies that have chipped away at confidence in British policing.”
Police morale is at its lowest ebb as the disarray has even spread to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) which is also looking to disband and rebrand itself. The association was Tony Blair’s favourite organisation — they only had to ask for a law and he would oblige, introducing a new criminal law for every day of his government.
The Mitchell case crowned an appalling year for the police of high-profile cases of cover-up and impropriety. In response to the conviction of Andrew Coulson, David Cameron said pompously,
“No one is above the law”.
But the story of Coulson showed quite the opposite — two police investigations had failed to prosecute Coulson. He would still be Director of Communications at No 10, were it not for the determination of the Hacked Off campaign and the journalist Nick Davies.
The most sinister revelation about the police has been that undercover officers formed relationships with women protesters, with whom they had children. It is unimaginable how the police allowed this to continue. The same Special Demonstration Squad spied on the Lawrence family during their campaign for justice following a dodgy police investigation that failed to prosecute the killers
of their son.
There has even been an inquest reopened into the deaths of 96 football fans at Hillsborough in 1989 because it has been discovered that over a hundred police statements had been amended, it appears, to fit in with the official police account.
No one now sees these cases as isolated behaviour. They reflect not some aberration, or a loss of moral compass, but a continuation of what the police have always been about: to keep people in their place at all costs, whether it be football fans, family justice campaigns or protesters.
That has always been the police’s primary role from 1839 when the Met attempted to smash Chartists out of Birmingham’s Bull Ring to the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, when, for example, by May 1984 Nottinghamshire Police were spending an extra £2 million a week to stop miners picketing.
The film, Still the Enemy Within, shows perfectly the police’s role at that time.
Of course, the police rebranding themselves will not stop further shocking behaviour, and they will continue to clamp down on dissent as with the anti-fracking protests. Nonetheless we can enjoy watching this monolithic organisation falling out in public. Their torment has been born out of the government’s unprecedented police cuts and bought about by their own shocking conduct. None of those cases would have come to light were it not for the determination of people fighting for the truth.
The Hillsborough and Stephen Lawrence campaigns have laid to rest the age old argument that individual cases of cover-up and injustice were the result of the odd bad apple.