Londoners have had a novel experience of late – a Metropolitan Police officer leading the national news for being good at the job rather than inept, and for adhering to the law rather than breaking it.
Sir Mark Rowley who, two weeks ago, faced an operational challenge that might have marked the beginning of the end of his time as Met Commissioner little more than a year after it started has emerged from the tensions of the Remembrance weekend and its squally aftermath not only more secure in his job but, most importantly, with his credibility as a leader and a reformer reinforced.
Last Thursday, “in conversation” at the Institute for Government, Rowley demonstrated both his grasp of the serious issues facing the capital’s police service and the part he can play in addressing them.
Media coverage of the occasion focussed on a coda to the Armistice Day pro-Palestine march in the form of Rowley’s reaction to an incident the night before in which a handful of protesters climbed on to the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. There were social media accusations that the police had done nothing about it.
“It is not illegal to climb onto a statue,” Rowley said, adding that officers on the scene had, nonetheless, asked the climbers to get down and been obliged. What officers hadn’t done, he elaborated, was “make up a law” to the contrary and arrested on the strength of it, “which would have been illegal”.
Not a difficult distinction, you might think, except, perhaps for a certain ex-Home Secretary – who, astoundingly, is also a King’s Counsel – who seemed to think the Met should place her desire to look big and tough above trivial stuff like legality.
The hour Rowley spent at the institute produced numerous other insights into his thinking about the policing of London, the powers at the Met’s disposal and the urgent need to clean-up and sharpen-up the service’s culture, even as demands on it mount.
He described having to deal with “one of most challenging convergences of threats I have ever seen” in the form of “Iranian-directed plots in the UK”, the surge in hate crime and various contentious protests “all in a society which is ever more polarised and debates things every more angrily on Twitter and elsewhere”.
And while some forms of offending have fallen over time, complex, time-consuming ones, such as cyber crime or violence against women and girls, are being reported more often. Rowley also revealed the single stat that worries him: “In the last decade young black men growing up in London are 13 times more likely to be murdered than young white men”.
Key to responding to all this is what Rowley described as “reinventing policing by consent for the 21st Century” and his plan for achieving this through “more trust, less crime and high standards”. He cited the nine principles of Sir Robert Peel when planting the roots of the Met and quoted from the fifth:
“To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws.”
Changing the law is for politicians, he emphasised again. The job of the police is to enforce it. Following the UK Supreme Court’s ruling the government’s plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda unlawful, another MP, Lee Anderson – a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party no less – said the law should be ignored. A journalist’s question alluded to this. Rowley has invited Anderson to wind his neck in in the past. This time he dryly observed: “Politicians hold me to account, I don’t hold them to account.”
The Commissioner stressed that reforming the Met isn’t only about rooting out bad officers. He said “the passion I see in officers” and their “sense of purpose” is unmatched by anything he’s encountered during spells in other areas of work and, taking his cue from the report of Louise Casey, related his sense that many in the service feel they are “not set up to succeed” in ways ranging from inadequate equipment to cheap uniform material. He derided the standard of leadership training, contrasting what the Army provides to its colonels with what the Met offers its chief superintendents.
“I can build success with the talent we have in this organisation,” Rowley said, “but we do need the support of others”. Part of that comes down to funding: getting back to Met spending per head of population as it was a decade ago would need “a 26 per cent uplift, which is £868 million”. He spoke of the foundations of the organisation being damaged by the erosion of the numbers of support staff and so on, due partly to “pressure to sustain officer numbers”.
Also beyond his control is the crumbling wider criminal justice system. Rowley was, though, pleased about what he called the “excellent” ongoing Home Office review of police officer accountability. “Officers confronting violent and dangerous people are increasingly more concerned about what will follow than they are about the dangerous person they are facing,” he said. “That can’t be right.”
Rowley has previously expressed a wish for an investigative system that is swift and felt on all sides to be fair in connection with the Chris Kaba case. That showed he and the Home Office under Suella Braverman weren’t always at odds. At the start of the furore over Armistice Day, they – and, indeed, Sadiq Khan – seemed in broad agreement that stronger action against extremism is desirable.
Other subjects covered at the Institute for Government event included the Met’s gathering and retaining images of members of the public, how data, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) might assist the police with identifying and restraining, for example, “the most dangerous male predators in London”, and strengthening community policing by recruiting more police community support officers, something Mayor Khan is keen on.
“It’s a small number of people who commit most crime, it’s a small number of people who suffer most crime, it’s a small number of locations that experience the most crime,” Rowley said. “AI has massive potential to make us more precise – precision is the key thing for me – so we can use our limited resources to best effect with tackling the most dangerous individuals and supporting the most vulnerable.”
It’s worth watching the webcast, embedded above, in full. Good cops are the greatest, bad cops are the worst. Mark Rowley seems to be one of the good ones.
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