Comment: Don’t let the police off the hook

The current outpouring of sympathy for the police sets a dangerous precedent. We need to be critical of their methods if we're to prevent more disorder.

By Ian Dunt

Criticise the police and a section of the political world closes its doors. You can see why. British police probably are, ultimately, the best in the world. In the same way that we return home from holiday full of appreciation for the BBC, Brits in Europe and America quickly come to appreciate the moderation and humility of our police force.

This did not occur because the British are somehow innately superior. It happened because we hound the police. We criticise them, we regulate them and we monitor them. The police are the most dangerous thing in the world. They are the mechanism the state uses to interfere with what you do. They are to be tolerated, not loved. It's by vigilance, not praise, that we keep them decent.

Our reaction to the riots has been understandably draconian and with that a newfound respect for the Met has developed. The Met leadership can be a canny political operator when it wants to be and that pro-police sentiment – in parliament, the press and among the public – is starting to offer it concessions it does not deserve. What the Met needs now, more than ever, is a firm, critical assessment of its performance and its culture.

On the night of the riots, things were very different. I stood by a shop which had been broken into as the owner cleaned up his stock and swept shattered glass out onto the street. When the police finally arrived he offered a stream of abuse about their incompetence and inability to "be here when we need you".

That particular anger was illegitimate. None of us predicted what was going to happen. Technology and a precise sociological trend had conspired to make this a uniquely difficult event to police. As the New Scientist wrote, this was the world's first non-localised riot. It was new, full of momentum and totally unforgiving. The fact the Met took 24 hours to adapt to wholly changed circumstances is entirely forgivable and understandable.

Police leaders were wise to turn down water cannons, which would have dispersed crowds which needed to be corralled. They were correct not to use rubber bullets, which would have undone years of successful policing culture. They were, all in all, a force for moderation during a highly-charged period.

Images of policemen bravely maintaining their ground in the face of mass violent abandon soon prompted a swell of public sympathy. The government's ill-advised decision to enter into a war of words with the Met critically misjudged public sentiment.

This newfound appreciation for the police is understandable but it is getting in the way of us realising the Met's systemic failures, many of which contributed to last week's violence.

The killing of Mark Duggan may seem entirely disconnected from the riots that took place in the days afterwards, but it was still the trigger. Triggers are symbolic moments which serve to summarise what are often long-running and persistent social trends.

The police were within their rights to shoot first at Duggan if they considered themselves under threat and perhaps that is what happened. We are unable to believe anything they say anymore. Each police killing follows the same pattern: instant lies and misdirection from 'police sources' or sometimes their own watchdog. This time it was that there was an exchange of fire, which was later shown to be false. Remember the heroic images suggested after the killing of Ian Tomlinson, of the reports of officers dragging him away while protests threw missiles at them, all loyally reported word for word by the media? Thank God for camera phones. When we saw the videos it looked very different, with protestors trying to help a vulnerable man after the police assaulted him.

Afro-Caribbean kids are disproportionately affected by police stop-and-search, and typically consider it a rite of passage. Police supporters put this down to the fact they are statistically more likely to commit crime. That's true, but the cycle is partially self-fulfilling. The Met's aggressive, suspicious attitude to ethnic minorities, especially when in groups of young people, serves to alienate them further from the society they live in and fuel a sense of grievance which will periodically erupt. It's not as if the police cause criminal behaviour or anything as simplistic as that. It's that the specific response fostered by the Met has worsened what is already the case. Their attitude creates an us vs them mentality.

During parliament's emergency recall last week, plenty of Conservative MPs stood up to suggest the riots happened because the police force had been 'emasculated' following the Tomlinson killing. It's difficult to imagine a more absurd argument. The police have been prevented from assaulting unarmed men who are not being threatening. How MPs can disagree with that sentiment when they are supposed to be representing the public is itself a matter of note, but allowing the police even more free-reign to abuse law-abiding citizens does not seem a reasonable way to address the discontent we saw. We need the precise opposite response, similar to what took place in the 1980s. While much was accomplished then, we must accept there is much still to do in terms of police relations with ethnic minority communities. We are in danger of ignoring that altogether.

The problems are not confined to street level. The home affairs committee's inquiry into the phone-hacking investigation showed us that the upper echelons of Scotland Yard are full of unspeakable mediocrity. From John Yates to Andy Hayman to Sir Paul Stephenson, the quality on offer was appalling, a catalogue of muddled-thinking, ethical failure and short-sightedness. Senior officers were unaware they shouldn't dine with those they were in charge of investigating. Assistant commissioners pretended to parliament that they had been tasked with reviewing a Guardian article rather than a prior police investigation. And there are good reasons to believe that an investigation was foreshortened because of fears about the media relations implications.

Media relations are at the bottom of this. To improve the police, the media should be adopting a much more critical approach to the Met than it has managed during a period of unhealthy co-dependence. The press has failed to adopt a critical approach to counter-productive tactics at street level and not exercised appropriate scrutiny at leadership level.

That's the secret to making sure British policing remains the best in the world: not praise, but vigilance.

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