As so often with the conduct of the Metropolitan Police, it’s hard to know where to direct your sympathies. When dozens of Met officers turned in their firearms in the wake of a colleague being charged with the murder of Londoner Chris Kaba, it was easy to understand the concerns of public servants whose work comes with daunting responsibilities. You also had to wonder if this “strike” displayed the default instinct of a specialist group to protect its own, no matter what the circumstances – behaviour of a type frequently seen as problematic within “elite” police units.
Some perspective seems in order: although over 100 firearms officers are reported to have made the protest, there are more than 2,500 of them in the Met and there is no longer a need for the Army to make up the numbers as many have now returned to duty. And the backdrop to it includes a long-running debate about how the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) go about examining the use of force by the police.
Sir Mark Rowley has stepped into that debate with his open letter to Home Secretary Suella Braverman, in response to her announcement, following the murder charge, of a “review” – apparently to ensure officers “mustn’t fear ending up in the dock for carrying out their duties”. Rowley’s letter thanked Braverman for her intervention and called for “reform to address a number of imbalances” with “a focus on on the threshold for investigating police use of force and involvement in pursuits”.
What should we make of all these actions, each of them prompted by a serious criminal charge being brought by the CPS after a lengthy investigation of an incident that has stirred strong passions from the start?
Lord Charlie Falconer KC, the UK’s first ever Secretary of State for Justice, has made his opinion very clear. “Metropolitan Police Commissioner, 100 police officers in armed response [and] Home Secretary attacking this decision fundamentally underlines the rule of law,” he says. “They should uphold justice system not pervert it.”
And Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation think tank, has told On London that although “it was “inevitable, given the stakes,” that the government would look at the issues, “it’s really important that the Home Secretary is not seen as interfering in a live criminal case”. He added: “Nor should politicians of any party or position be second guessing decisions made by the IOPC or the CPS when they are not close to the detail. The criminal case has to run its course without interference.”
We are, of course, used to Braverman taking any opportunity to showboat about crime and promote what she calls “common sense policing” – a vacuous populist slogan at best. It is no surprise, either, to see Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall taking an “I support the legal process, but” position over Kaba and the firearms officers’ display of dissent. Yet she has no more knowledge of the detail of the case than those officers. Eager to position herself as pro-police whatever, she has also expressed approval of Rowley’s letter.
The letter itself is more diligent about distancing itself from the Kaba case. “I make no comment on any ongoing matters that are sub judice,” Rowley writes. Meanwhile, Sadiq Khan, whose duties as Mayor of London include also being the capital’s police and crime commissioner, has been judiciously neutral in his public comments, saying he thinks one of Rowley’s concerns is the length of time it takes for investigations to be conducted, emphasising the need for “a system everyone has confidence in” and expressing appreciation for the “extreme pressure with unique responsibilities” that come with a firearms officer’s job.
It would be interesting to know if Rowley consulted Khan before writing to Braverman – On London has asked City Hall if he did – given the ambiguities surrounding how Met Commissioners are answerable to different politicians. The issue of Met accountability is fraught and complex in a number of ways, and also ever-present, as the death of a motorcyclist early this morning in Oxford Street after being chased by two Met bikes shows.
The first meeting of Mayor Khan’s new London Policing Board, set up on the recommendation of Baroness Casey, will take place tomorrow. It too is concerned with ensuring that the Met does its job effectively and properly. “In the UK we proudly police by consent, embracing the principles of accountability, transparency and independent scrutiny,” Rowley wrote in his letter to Braverman. “It is essential that we have a system which commands the confidence of officers and the communities they serve.”
Achieving both of those things in London will not be easy. Politicians and others taking advantage of high profile cases that prompt fierce passions in the city don’t make it any easier.
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