openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Cressida Dick isn’t the problem. The police are the problem

It is a mistake to think that new leadership will make any substantial difference in the basic nature and functioning of the Met

Alex S. Vitale
12 February 2022, 12.01am
Policing at a memorial vigil for Sarah Everard, who was murdered by a serving police officer
Denise Laura Baker/Alamy Live News

UK home secretary Priti Patel has pledged to replace Cressida Dick with a Met commissioner who is up to the task of delivering public safety and restoring public confidence in the police service.

This is a tall order for an institution repeatedly accused of structural racism, misogyny, and corruption. While there is clearly a crisis of public support for the Met, a change in leadership is unlikely to lead to the kind of transformative changes needed.

Cressida Dick is the product of an institution she has inhabited for almost 30 years.

In 1999, the Macpherson report demonstrated that the Met suffered from structural racism following its failure to investigate the death of Stephen Lawrence. In 2005, an anti-terrorism operation run by Dick erroneously killed Jean Charles de Menezes, leading to widespread allegations of incompetence and overzealousness in such operations.

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In 2021, an independent panel investigating the mishandling of the murder of Daniel Morgan in 2013 found a pattern of institutional corruption in which the Met was more concerned about covering up its mistakes than resolving the case. And in 2022 – following the murder of Sarah Everard by a Met officer, and the ensuing investigative failures and repression of protests – the Met was found to harbour a culture of misogyny that was further supported by incidents of sexual assault, failures to protect women, and repeated incidents of racist, misogynist and homophobic discourse and behaviour according to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

Just as it would be a mistake to blame Dick for all of these institutional crises, it is a mistake to think that replacing her with new leadership will make any substantial difference in the basic nature and functioning of the Met.

But this won’t prevent political leaders from all parties from attempting to mobilise a discourse of leadership transformation in the service of restoring police legitimacy.

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Both Patel and London mayor Sadiq Khan have framed the change in leadership as an effort to “restore public trust in the police” through a change of “police culture”. But these are the wrong goals and are unlikely to be achieved given the political imperatives that they themselves have set for the Met.

Patel has made it clear that she wants to appoint a Met commissioner who will double down on fighting crime through intensive and invasive police practices such as stop and search, which she has expanded in recent years despite repeated warnings and legal challenges pointing out the disparate racial impacts of these practices.

When political leaders make it clear to the police that they are solely responsible for the production of public safety, there is going to be police abuse and corruption. It is built into the model. The culture of policing is a product of the mission set by these political leaders.

Over the last 40 years London has been in the grip of austerity politics in which basic social services have been reduced: social housing privatised, youth services eliminated, support for families in crisis diminished and access to mental health services cut at the same time that access to decent paying jobs in the formal economy has declined.

The result has been an increase in both low level “disorder” such as homelessness, untreated mental health and substance abuse issues, rowdy behaviour by working class youth, and an uptick in serious violence such as knife crime.

Young people in too many parts of London are hurting from a lack of real opportunities and support services, and then face widespread criminalisation.

Young people in too many parts of London are hurting from a lack of real opportunities and support services, and then face widespread criminalisation

The police have been told that they are the solution to all this. They are to use systems of surveillance, harassment, arrest, and violence targeting the most vulnerable individuals and communities to produce social order; a social order that the targets of that policing rarely benefit from. That task is rooted in the mobilisation of coercion and violence that defines society’s problems as ones of individual and group moral failure that must be managed through the threat of police action. The police, therefore, are told to view those they police as the enemy. In the process, a culture of deep social conservatism and defensiveness invariably develops within policing. This has been at the heart of the scandals facing the Met.

Since coercion and violence are the tools upon which policing rests, a culture of authoritarian male-oriented power will always emerge among officers whose mission encourages them to see the world in simplistic black and white terms of good guys and bad guys – regardless of the gender of officers or their leaders. Authoritarianism is, at heart, rooted in the world view that problems of social order must be addressed through repressive means, which is the fundamental method of policing.

Further, since the mission the police pursue involves the criminalisation of those in need, there is a fundamental illegitimacy to their endeavour that creates a climate of defensiveness among police who feel that no one understands the challenges they face from a public that does not want to be policed by them and, at times, actively resists them. This leads to excessive use of force, failure to provide aid to those in need, and dehumanisation of those deemed to be the sources of crime and disorder.

Until we de-centre the idea that police are the solution to our problems, the culture of policing will remain largely unchanged – regardless of who is in charge of the institution.

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