The Metropolitan Police: institutionally stupid?

Some years ago London’s Metropolitan Police were accused of being “institutionally racist” by a learned judge. Recently I was talking to an experienced police officer (not from the Met, as it happens), who took great exception to this accusation. Now I have no strong evidence that the original accusation was fair (nor that it wasn’t), and neither do I feel able to comment on how things stand now on that matter. But it goes with the territory that institutional failings are often invisible to the institution’s members. This came to mind in the latest kerfuffle over the police’s investigation of child sex abuse claims.

The current row centres around accusations of child sex abuse made about Lord Bramall, a distinguished ex-soldier. Lord Bramall claims that the whole matter was bungled, took far longer than the merits of the case warranted, and was conducted without regard for the impact on the accused. Similar claims have been made about other investigations of child sex abuse, and not just by the Met (one by Wiltshire Police on former Prime Minister Edward Heath comes to mind). In response senior police officers seem unable to understand what they are being accused of, and reject the criticism as unfair, beyond the odd minor mistake. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met’s Commissioner won’t apologise, because he thinks that doing so would suggest that no investigation should have been carried out. Which his critics have never suggested.

Sir Bernard did muse, however, that perhaps the police’s policy of automatically believing accusers in sex abuse cases might not be quite right. This attracted an attack from Vera Baird, the police and crime commissioner of Northumbria, a lawyer by profession.  She suggested that any departure from a strict policy of believing all accusers would condemn thousands of victims.This entirely misses the point.

The trouble is that the sort of practices complained about by Lord Bramall are hardly restricted to the investigation of sex abuse claims on famous people. They are normal police practice. Plodding investigation (if you are lucky, that is; too often nothing is happening at all as cases never get to the top of the pile before the file is lost); vital clues ignored; complete disregard for the impact of their investigation on the people that are involved in it. In common language, a complete and utter lack of common sense – and instead blind adherence to policies and procedures that prevent context, efficiency and initiative from getting in the way. And this does not just apply to investigations; the police got into a real muddle over crowd management at the G8 summit in London in 2013. They applied “tactics” (a revealing word) that were often totally inappropriate in context, causing distress to thousands of ordinary law-abiding citizens.

But this is how many people like to run large organisations, and how, incidentally, lawyers often advise such organisations be run. The senior officers adopt sheaf-loads of policies and plans, and then tell their underlings to follow them. If something goes wrong, it either arises from a failure of an underling to follow a policy, or else the policy itself is at fault. And, of course, because the policy cannot cater for all circumstances, many failures are tolerated with a shrug, and, are not seen as failures but as just the way the world is. What is not allowed is for junior management to assess a situation, and decide the most appropriate course of action, given the organisation’s overall objectives, disregarding those sheafs of policy documents. Hence Ms Baird’s and Sir Bernard’s spat over police policy on how to treat sex abuse accusations. Neither can stand the thought of discretion and common sense entering police procedure; or rather, the idea that it might do is unthinkable. It is institutional blindness. and institutional stupidity.

Lord Bramall, as former Field Marshal, may well recognise the syndrome. One hundred years ago armies used to be run like this. The senior staff made plans; everybody else had to comply, regardless of context (even the political leaders, in the case of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan in 1914). It proved utterly disastrous as the First World War unfolded, and nowhere more so than in the order-loving German army. The shock was such that the Germans carried out a systematic rethink, so that by the Second World War they had managed to reconcile the need for local initiative and overall command. Evil though their cause was, the German army proved astonishingly effective in that war, except at its very top level of command. Right until the end they seemed to outfight their opponents man for man. Modern armies learnt from this, and local initiative is now a standard part of how the British Army works.

Alas the police have no such initiative-taking, intelligence-using, problem-solving culture, except perhaps in elite units. This seems to affect all British police forces; it just creates most damage in the Met, the country’s biggest, where senior management are most remote from the front line. A living demonstration of the problem can be seen in the recent disastrous merger of Scotland’s police forces, which was much applauded by policy wonks south of the border when it was first proposed.

It is perhaps one good reason why an outsider, from another country or another service, might be a good idea to lead the Met. But the problem is much deeper. Police middle management seem to be of dire quality, being so cossetted in a culture that favours following orders and procedure, and then sticking together under pressure. It will be a tough job making things better.