Why the Met Police keep failing
Much has been made of the decision to place the Metropolitan Police in what is often called special measures, where they join five other forces from England and Wales. The many ways the Met failed were also widely publicized, from the murder of Sarah Everard by an on-duty officer to the botched investigation of serial killer Stephen Port, to the racist and sexist mindset put at naked in some London police stations. Many crime rates in the capital have risen sharply, as has – understandably – public discontent.
The blame game that has erupted between the Home Office and London Mayor Sadiq Khan should also come as no surprise. With the search for a new commissioner to replace Dame Cressida Dick now in its final stages, it becomes an argument over how to remedy the Met’s very obvious failings and what its priorities should be in the immediate future.
The antagonism is nonetheless stark, with the police minister accusing Khan of being ‘asleep at the wheel’ and Khan’s retort that he had long called for change, only to be blocked by Patel herself and the prime minister. Such recriminations do not bode well for administrative harmony once a new commissioner is in place.
But this latest squabble should also suggest something else: that much of the public opinion worried about what is required of a new commissioner, including a determination to introduce sweeping reform, may be barking – be the wrong tree. Is it really, or only, the character of the new owner? Wouldn’t it be at least as many structures and responsibility? Because London has been here before, right? And not so long ago. Over the past decade, relations between then Home Secretary Theresa May and the then Mayor of London – none other than Boris Johnson – have at times been as rocky as they seem currently between Priti Patel and Sadiq Khan.
They got off to an acrimonious start, due to – guess what – the appointment of a new commissioner, with Johnson unhappy with the original slate and wanting the veto. The technical position is that the Commissioner is appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Home Secretary, who is supposed to ‘account’ for the mayor’s advice. But it is not difficult to see in this formula a recipe for conflict. Four years later, in 2015, relations between the Home Office and City Hall soured over Johnson’s preemptive purchase of a water cannon for use in the event of a repeat of the 2011 London riots. Eventually, the mayor had to admit defeat, even though he had the backing of then-commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe. National policy, as decided by the government, apparently took precedence over what the mayor deemed necessary for London.
Now that it is his home secretary who faces off against his successor as mayor, the irony can hardly be lost on Johnson. Although the details of the disputes are different, the essence is the same: who is ultimately responsible for the force that makes London’s police? Where does the responsibility end? who has the last word? It is never good for the answers to such questions to be vague in any power structure, but especially not when the subject is a police officer.
Certainly, it should be obvious by now that the division of responsibilities for the Metropolitan Police, between the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London, invites nothing but contention. So does the Met’s dual role, as a quasi-national police force and a force whose job it is also to keep Londoners safe.
Among the police forces of England and Wales, the Met is unique in that it is a single institution, but its officers and commissioner must serve two masters. I happen to think Boris Johnson was right to consider the same crowd control methods for London that are standard in many European capitals. I also happen to think that while the mayor-elect is responsible, as he is, for policing the capital, the choice of police leadership in London rests entirely with City Hall, and the mayor should not be able to pass on, or even share, blame for mistakes.
The government probably has too much on its plate at the moment, with inflation, the cost of living, NHS waiting lists and the war in Ukraine, to even think about restructuring the Met or, better yet, to completely overhaul the font. service in England and Wales is arranged. But the lines of any reform must be clear.
It is high time that England and Wales, if not the whole of the United Kingdom, had on the one hand a real national police force and on the other hand a separate service in charge of the police local on a daily basis. The national force would be responsible for dealing with the most serious crimes, including terrorism, other major investigations, and all large-scale and international financial crimes. Organized crime is currently the preserve of no less than three different agencies, including the City of London Police, the Serious Fraud Office and the National Crime Agency, and we wonder why we have failed to tackle the money laundering.
This is how most European countries and even the United States organize themselves, and we should follow this example. With so much serious crime now having a national and international aspect, it is absurd that England and Wales will come closest to a centralized police force when the Met is summoned to help one of the 43 police forces. regional police after a particularly heinous crime. (the Soham murders in Cambridgeshire or the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury).
The growing wave of public dissatisfaction, particularly in London, and the shockingly low clearance rate for so many crimes should be treated as an opportunity to review structures and lines of accountability.
PS Allow me to add a personal footnote. I live less than ten minutes walk from Parliament. Fittingly, there are dozens of officers stationed in and around its compound, and the same goes for Whitehall. They come in impressive numbers to the police demonstrations, with their vans lined up in every street. But the impression of a copious font is misleading.
The residential streets of the district must be among the least supervised in the capital. Neighborhood officers are rare, after all, there are plenty of police around, aren’t there? But the officers who are on duty are not there to control drug trafficking, muggings, antisocial behavior or thefts from stores. They are not there for us. Something similar can be felt – although perhaps less intensely – in many parts of London, where the majority of police stations have closed. And that’s one of the first things anyone who is serious about improving not just the image, but the actual performance of the Met, needs to change. Separating national police tasks from local tasks would be a start.