Pandaemonium

BRITAIN’S BOBBIES IN THE DOCK

My latest column for the International New York Times, on the crisis surrounding Britain’s police.


Earlier this month, Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary, announced a public inquiry into reports that the Metropolitan Police had spied on a black family, even as the force was supposed to be investigating the racist killing of the family’s eldest son. Mrs. May called the revelations ‘profoundly shocking’ and said that ‘policing stands damaged today’.

The story goes back to 1993, when Stephen Lawrence, a young student who aspired to be an architect, was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths in southeast London. The Metropolitan Police’s bungled investigation of the murder soon became a cause célèbre in British politics, leading to much soul-searching about attitudes toward minority communities and the culture of policing.

A 1999 official inquiry into the police investigation already condemned London’s force as ‘institutionally racist’. It has now emerged that the police employed an undercover officer to spy on the Lawrences, apparently searching for dirt with which to smear the dead teenager’s family as it pressed for justice.

This is but the latest in a series of scandals that have shaken the British police in recent months. The spying operation on the Lawrence family was conducted by members of the Special Demonstration Squad, a secret police unit established to infiltrate protest groups. It has now been revealed that, for years, several of the unit’s male undercover officers posed as activists in environmental groups, took part in illegal activities and had relationships, and even children, with unsuspecting female activists.

Then, last year, police officers were exposed as having lied about the actions of a government minister. Andrew Mitchell, the government’s chief whip in the House of Commons, was accused of verbally abusing police officers in 10 Downing Street. He admitted using bad language, but denied that he had called them ‘plebs’ (as in plebeian); even so, he was forced to resign. Subsequently, it emerged that a passing ‘tourist’ who had claimed to witness the altercation was, in fact, a police officer not even present. Two officers have been sacked (and one of them jailed) for their part in the affair, which the media called ‘Plebgate’.

The police had been locked in a dispute with the government over funding cuts, so the accusation against Mr. Mitchell seemed to be a form of revenge. If the police could frame a powerful Conservative politician, people asked, what might they be doing daily to ordinary members of the public?

The result of all this has been a sense of crisis enveloping the police force, which many now regard as devoid of moral grounding. So, what has happened to the British police? When did the famous British bobby — so trusted in authority that he did not need to be armed — disappear?

Part of the answer, of course, is that the old-fashioned British bobby was always a myth. Corruption, racism and malpractice have always infected Britain’s police force. Through the 1970s and 1980s, a series of high-profile cases of miscarriages of justice, involving mainly Irish and black suspects, exposed a darkness at the heart of the police force.

Continue reading in the International New York Times.