Britain's police must reform or lose respect and trust
During the two-and-a-half years I served as police minister, I was privileged to meet many fine police officers. From the brilliant detectives who solve the worst crimes, to the committed neighbourhood teams who work hard to build confidence in their communities, to the stoic response officers who deal with drunks every weekend, I never lost my admiration for the best in the thin blue line.
Attending bravery awards only reinforced my respect, while memorial services for fallen officers were always a stark reminder of the risks that police officers take. None of this, however, clouded my conviction that the police service was in need of reform, a belief that has only been strengthened by recent events.
We haven't yet got to the bottom of the Mitchell affair – and it is important that the Met and the IPCC do so as soon as possible. The idea that serving police officers might have conspired to bring down a cabinet minister could hardly be more serious. But the truth is that while corruption may not be endemic, neither is it an aberration.
Last month, five Kent detectives were arrested amid allegations that crime figures had been manipulated. In September, the Hillsborough Independent Panel found that South Yorkshire police had rewritten officers' accounts of the disaster, removing and amending material that they found unhelpful to their case.
The public reaction to the panel's verdict might have been sharper were it not for the awful killing of two women police officers that followed. Those events also heightened the pressure on Mitchell. And when he unwisely swore at a police officer, the temptation for those who were lobbying against reforms to police pay proved too great.
Anyone who doubts what was behind Mitchell's downfall need only read the blog of Inspector Gadget. A serving police officer, the self-promoted Gadget (he is not an inspector) says: "The relationship between Conservatives and police officers is not just toxic, it is over." Feelings about the reform of pay and conditions were so strong "there was bound to be trouble. Plebgate is trouble".
If the admission that Mitchell's hounding out of office was caused by resentment over police reform were not bad enough, the next lines are breathtaking: "The officer who said he was outside the gates off duty when he wasn't is a smokescreen." To the rest of us, the idea that a serving police officer might have fabricated an account is shocking, but Gadget sees nothing wrong.
Here, in one silly blog, is the epitome of the problem. Gadget and his followers can't see that the government's action on pensions and pay freezes is driven by economic necessity, applying across the whole public sector, and affecting many with far lower salaries than police officers. And their belief that they are victims "under attack" apparently justifies even the breaking of the law they are sworn to uphold, at least if politicians are the target.
I don't believe that extreme action is condoned by the decent majority of police officers. I know from personal experience that there are good people in the Police Federation itself who legitimately stick up for their members' interests. And while reforms to outdated pay and conditions are objectively justifiable, there is real concern among officers about the impact of the changes on their pay packets.
But the sensible majority need to understand how badly they are being let down by a hot-headed minority who have gone too far. Their rudeness to the impressively calm home secretary at the Police Federation conferencedid not deflect her determination to do what she believes is necessary and right, but it did damage the service in the eyes of those who watched.
There are wider lessons to be learned. The rush to judgment on McAlpine and Mitchell should make us all pause and reflect. Nor was it edifying that some newspapers refused to censure officers for leaking confidential material because of their worry that sources of juicy information might dry up. And cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood's investigation of the incident, following his green light to the flawed West Coast Mainline franchise, has raised eyebrows.
But it is the police service that above all must take stock and examine its own culture. Why is it that organisations such as the Inland Revenue, which holds sensitive tax information on prominent figures, do not leak, yet police officers, with their powers of coercion and a duty to uphold the law, think nothing of tipping off the press at the first opportunity?
Last week on Any Questions, broadcast from a Buckinghamshire village, Jonathan Dimbleby gasped as the majority of his audience indicated they were losing trust in the police. Where once minority communities seemed alone in raising doubts, middle England has found common cause.
This is not a crisis, but it is serious, and it must be addressed by police leaders. Elected police and crime commissioners must fulfil their new mandate to hold the police to account. They should review how much of their police budget is being spent to pay some Police Federation officials, serving officers who are not supporting their colleagues but are agitating politically and often inappropriately.
The new College of Policing, set up to uphold standards and guard ethics and integrity, must show that it has mettle and teeth. It could begin by addressing the concern that every year more than 200 police officers resign or retire to avoid misconduct proceedings. A public list of censured officers would at least demonstrate that justice has been done and prevent them obtaining inappropriate employment elsewhere.
The quiet professionalism that ensured the jubilee and the Olympics were kept safe advertised British policing at its best. The Hillsborough report and the weak phone-hacking investigation have shown the service at its worst. The extent of wrongdoing should not be exaggerated, but the cancer must be cut out before it spreads. The police do difficult and sometimes dangerous work. They deserve our respect for that and both sides must act to keep it