PCC Blog 144

Last week Baroness Louise Casey published her review of the standards and culture of the Metropolitan police. The review was, in her words, ‘rigorous, stark and unsparing’.

It was commissioned by the Mayor of London following the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer in 2021. The review details many other instances of misogyny as well as homophobia and racism within the force. It makes for utterly gloomy reading, stunning members of the public and, in fairness, many police officers as well. Its damning conclusion was that the Met was institutionally racist, homophobic and misogynistic – together with the suggestion that what was found in the Met might exist elsewhere.

The key word in the review’s conclusions was not ‘racist’, or ‘homophobic’ or ‘misogynistic’ but  ‘institutional’. If the Met could not accept that finding, then it was not wholeheartedly accepting the critical finding of the review.

But the Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, could not accept the word institutional and other chief constables have distanced themselves from it as well. That will make it hard to convince many in the country that the Met, or any other force, is really going to do what needs to be done to tackle what Casey found.

So why the reluctance to use the word institutional?

I think there are two main reasons.

First, chiefs think that calling any organisation ‘institutionally’ racist, sexist or misogynistic suggests that this is an issue for that organisation alone when in fact it is a wider, societal issue and has to be addressed by all of us. But that isn’t what it means to say that a particular organisation has an institutional problem. There are indeed wider issues of racism, sexism and misogyny in society, but as part of the contribution towards addressing them, each organisation must deal with its own issues.

Second, chief officers fear that if they were to say ‘institutional’, the public and many rank and file officers, would believe they were saying that every officer was racist, homophobic and misogynistic. I understand the fear, but again, Louise Casey was very clear that this was not what she was saying – though those that are racist, sexist or misogynist need to be called out and rooted out. She identifies the problem at a different level from that of the attitudes and actions of individuals. She could have called this cultural or systemic rather than institutional – and sometimes does. But her chosen word for her overall summary is institutional.

She uses that word deliberately. It harks back in London to the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Sir William Macpherson found the police investigation to have been ‘incompetent’, partly as a result of issues of race. He said the force was ‘institutionally racist’. The Met never accepted that and presumably, therefore, never thoroughly examined themselves in the light of it. By using the same word, Casey is forcing the Met to admit that the central problem remains.

An issue is institutional – I prefer the word cultural – when it is about the way we do things. Individual officers do not have to have particular attitudes if the way things are habitually done leads to biases and outcomes that are racist, sexist or misogynistic. Officers are unconsciously caught up in that. If the organisation is to change it must reflect on these institutional matters.  If you don’t accept that the problems are institutional, then you fall back on different explanations: it’s all about individual bad apples in a society that is itself unreformed.  In other words, cultural change cannot just be about promoting certain values, important as that is, but about deep reflection on the way an organisation does things.

Embedded in the review is an account of the way the Met handled a vigil that was held in memory of Sarah Everard in the days that followed her murder. It sums up very well why the Met’s difficulties are institutional.

A women’s group, Reclaim These Streets, approached the police to say they wanted to hold a socially distanced event to remember Sarah. London was under Tier 4 Covid restrictions at the time and gatherings of more than two were not permitted. The police banned the event. But it was soon clear that women would gather anyway. The force then had choices. There were no easy answers but in one management meeting the possibility of allowing a socially distanced vigil overseen by a low key police presence of all female officers was considered, but set aside. Instead, the vigil went ahead without permission and so without the stewarding that the women’s group would have supplied, and ended with scenes of male police officers wrestling women to the ground and arresting them – video footage of which went viral and did enormous damage to the reputation of the police.

In other words, the Met had carried on doing what it always did – the usual institutional response – and was not alert to the feelings of fear and anger that made the women come to the vigil despite the ban and despite any health risks. It was insensitive to women’s concerns. This is how institutional misogyny works.

In South Yorkshire we have had to learn the hard way about how you recover from your mistakes. Our issues were quite different, but the starting point was the same: you have to acknowledge what the victims of your actions are saying to you and learn that lesson first – with no denials, no defensiveness, no ifs and no buts. And we also have strong holding to account arrangements in place.

That is not what the response to Louise Casey’s report currently looks like in the Met and if that is the case, we shall be back here again at some future point. The only option that will be acceptable then will be the breakup of the Met.

We discovered last week that sorry is not the hardest word for the police to say. Institutional is.

Vehicle thefts

At a recent Public Accountability Board meeting the police reported on car thefts. I jumped when they said the most popular cars being stolen were Ford Fiestas – because I drive one! The second most favoured car is the Land Rover.

I now realise that this is not only a South Yorkshire phenomenon. In the West Midlands, the police report each year to the Police and Crime Commissioner, about car thefts. In their latest report they say that last year, thieves stole 3,500 Fords. This was an increase of one third over the previous year, while Land Rover thefts doubled. The theft of Fiats also increased – by 65% with 324 vehicles stolen. Even so, the car most targeted in the West Midlands remains the Abarth. Seven percent of all registered Abarths were stolen in 2022. The rise in vehicle thefts altogether has gone from 3,960 in 2014 to a fairly staggering 13,634 in 2022  – a rise that is mirrored in other force areas. We clearly have a national crisis which is probably not yet registering sufficiently in the public consciousness.

When I looked at the figures for the total number of thefts in South Yorkshire (April 2021 to March 2022) it was no less depressing. Altogether, 4259 vehicles were taken. If you work this out as a rate for each 1000 of the population then that equates to 3 thefts per 1000. In the West Midlands that was 4 for the same period. In West Yorkshire it was 2.3, with 5448 vehicles stolen. The national figure for England and Wales is 1.9.

There seems to be an epidemic of thefts as criminals find ways of stealing vehicles very quickly, often overnight while people sleep. They have learnt how to bypass car security systems with relative ease, copying digital keys and boosting a car fob signal to open car doors and start the engine. The more accomplished can do this within seconds.

Apart from those higher value vehicle types stolen to order, the cars are quickly broken up in a chop shop. It’s the parts that the thieves want.

Since the West Midlands is a great centre for car manufacture, perhaps they will take note of what the local police have been experiencing and improve security in vehicles further. In the meantime, we can’t say we haven’t been warned.

(The additional data is from the Office for National Statistics)

Stay safe