As the process for recruiting its next commissioner continues there is no question that the Metropolitan Police Service is in crisis. Policing researcher Gavin Hales has set out huge challenges awaiting whoever gets the job: reconnecting with London’s communities, managing the complex relationships with City Hall and Whitehall, rebuilding force morale and sorting out creaking IT systems. And top of the agenda must be tackling the disastrous collapse of trust and confidence in the Met, fuelled by the now well-known concerns about racism, sexism, the impact of a serving officer being guilty of murder, disproportionate use of stop and search, the botched handling of the “partygate” inquiry – the list goes on.
The figures are stark. By the end of last year according to City Hall’s confidence measure – whether the Met is doing a good job locally – just 51 per cent of Londoners agreed that it was compared to 68 per cent in December 2017. That was an “all-time low”, according to Sadiq Khan. By March of this year it was down to 49 per cent.
Trust in the Met is slumping too and an alarming 28 point gap has opened up between black and white Londoners’ trust levels. In some areas of the city it’s clear that a majority of residents do not trust the police. Those communities are less well protected as a result and, as Khan told the London Assembly “the bad people get away with it”.
What needs to be done? For Dr Rick Muir, director of the Police Foundation think tank, it’s time for a “Sir Robert Mark moment”. Mark was the tough-talking Met commissioner of the 1970s who confronted widespread corruption in the Met’s Criminal Investigation Department, famously saying that the force should be catching more criminals than it employed.
Muir says that, like Mark, “the new commissioner has to come in and name this as a real problem which requires serious change. It needs calling out. It will make them unpopular with the Police Federation [the staff association for Met officers below superintendent level], but at some point you’ve got to tell some hard truths.”
It won’t be easy. The Met has tended to downplay its problems, appearing “tin-eared” and over-defensive. There’s been “too much circling of the wagons” and “hunkering down” rather than engaging with criticism, says Muir. Hales adds that at the same time the force has made a “terrible job” of explaining itself on issues such as disproportionate stop and search and its response to the vigil for Sarah Everard. The inspectorate of constabulary found in its report into the policing of the vigil that the Met’s response amounted to a “public relations disaster” with a “materially adverse effect on public confidence in policing”, even though it also concluded that no officers had behaved in a “heavy-handed” way.
The Met will need to consider its refusal to accept the ‘institutional racism’ tag too, with former commissioner Cressida Dick arguing previously that it was an “outdated” description which alienated police officers as well as the public. The service needs to accept that it was “guilty as charged” and embrace the need to change, senior Met officer Neil Basu wrote last month.
Muir says a key test will be the new commissioner’s approach to its widely-criticised use of stop and search powers, which Dick has also robustly defended despite it being a key factor in black Londoners’ growing mistrust of the police. The issue also demonstrates where Scotland Yard’s dual accountability, to City Hall and to Whitehall, could put the Met at risk of being pulled in different directions, with the Home Secretary recently urging a tougher, less regulated approach to stop and search.
“The next commissioner is going to have to make up their mind what they think about that,” Muir says. “If they want to improve trust and confidence, stop and search is at the heart of a lot of the tension. It’s a big choice.”
A further priority, according to Hales, must be to “rebuild the connection between the Met and local communities”, looking again at the 2018 restructuring, which saw borough-level policing, with each local authority area having its own commander, controversially replaced by 12 much larger basic command units (BCUs).
That restructuring, which was a response to continuing funding cuts, effectively eroded neighbourhood policing, says Hales, who believes the decline in confidence in the Met can be linked clearly to its introduction. He argues that the Met “needs to give Londoners a better sense of what they are doing in local areas and focus on building trusted long-term personal relationships between named local officers and local residents.”
And that needs to go hand in hand with better supervision of junior and often inexperienced officers. The Hotton report into inappropriate behaviours at Charing Cross police station revealed almost non-existent direct line management, with the teams in question rarely seeing colleagues above the rank of sergeant.
“There is a job to be done there,” says Muir. “How do we get people in the right place providing leadership of the right kind so people have role models and the organisation’s expectations of all its people are clear? The key to improving the culture is to get the front-line supervision right, and that has drifted.”
Louise Casey’s wide-ranging review of the Met’s culture and standards of behaviour, commissioned by Dick shortly before her resignation, will be an important milestone for the new commissioner. And while Dick ended up complaining about the “politicisation of policing” even as the Met was successfully bringing down murder, shooting and stabbing rates, building bridges with City Hall will be important too for her successor as changes are implemented.
But, as Muir says, it remains an inauspicious time for the Met, and the first summer after the pandemic lockdowns could bring more challenges. Turning round a complex organisation like the Met won’t be easy, but what’s clear is that no change is not an option.
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