Editorial | Scotland Yard and the face of accountability
Last Thursday, Cressida Dick, the chief of London Metropolitan Police (MET), resigned. She lost the support of the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, with whom she had to work closely. Neither could she count on the backing of the home secretary Priti Patel – who has ultimate responsibility in hiring the Scotland Yard boss – in bucking Mr Khan.
Dame Cressida, who was the MET’s female chief, has been in the job science 2017. She had at least 15 more months to go in her contract. She was forced out not because of recent rising crime in London, especially teenage homicides, of which there were 30 last year. The major complaint was that Ms Dick hasn’t been aggressive enough in reforming the MET and excising its culture of misogyny, racism and bullying.
The final straw was last week’s report by the watchdog, the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC), that homed in a group of officers who shared WhatsApp and Facebook messages about, among other things:
• Their willingness to rape colleagues;
• Attending events dressed as a sex offender;
• Using steroids and visiting sex workers;
• Threatening violence against domestic partners; and
• Inappropriate comments about the holocaust and minority groups.
Female officers subjected to sexual harassment were told, according to the IOPC, that it was part of “police culture, that they should accept it, ‘play the game or stay quiet’, or leave”. The IOPC didn’t believe that this attitude merely reflected “few bad apples”, but of a deep cultural problem of the force.
In the face of this report and already shaken public confidence in the MET over other negative issues, Mr Khan wasn’t satisfied that Cressida Dick’s new plans were sufficient to tackle the crisis.
Ms Dick, in the circumstances, had no option but to go. “... It is clear that the mayor no longer has sufficient confidence in my leadership to continue,” Dame Cressida said in a statement. “He has left me no choice but to step aside as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service.”
Two things are strikingly familiar about what was highlighted in the IOPC report and the perception of observers about how the MET’s leadership responded to criticisms of the force.
The first is the almost universality of these toxic behaviours in police organisations and the culture of silence that surround them. There were police officers who saw and disagreed with the toxicity in the MET, but felt powerless to speak out. Concerned officers didn’t believe they would get an adequate hearing from their superiors, some of whom openly tolerated, if not embraced, the culture. Those who mustered the courage and complained were generally, the IOPC said, “harassed, humiliated and excluded”.
It is proverbial circling of the wagons, in protection of the group and its norms. It was what is known in Jamaica as the “squaddie mentality” – culture of loyalty to batchmates by police officers, and their protective circling of the wagons against perceived external threats.
It’s an attitude that has made the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) largely impervious to change and the kinds of reforms that have been talked about for decades, despite ongoing claims of corruption in the JCF.
Second is the assessment of how Cressida Dick responded to the many challenges and crises she faced as head of the MET. Andy George, the president of the UK’s National Black Police Association (NBPA), praised Ms Dick’s commitment to police service, but said that she was too “defensive and dismissive” of criticisms.
“Her devotion to officers and staff was clear for all to see but this was ultimately her Achilles heel,” Inspector George told the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “...Her desire to protect the reputation of the force has prevented the wholesale cultural reforms that are much needed.”
LOST HER PERSPECTIVE
An amplification of Inspector George’s perspective might be that Ms Dick lost her perspective as the leader of the institution, and with it, her capacity to stand above the fray. She thus became a “squaddie”, reflexively manning the ramparts with the rest against the outsiders.
This kind of institutional co-option of police chiefs isn’t uncommon in Jamaica.
Given the island’s high crime rate, and the pressure they feel to show results, commissioners may believe that they have few options than to rely on the constabulary’s existing members, claims of the force’s deep corruption notwithstanding. In this scenario, discussions about improvements to the force tend focus on investment in equipment and technologies and not on fundamental institutional overhaul, especially with respect to personnel At the same time, policymakers, aware of the political potency of the constabulary and its potential to swing elections, acquiesce to this narrow interpretation of transformation.
Perhaps the current police chief and former head of the army, Antony Anderson, will break this mould, insisting not only on cosmetic adjustments, but radical transformative action to excise toxicity from the JCF.
Some experts say that giving the JCF a fresh start, with new cultural norms, requires removing at least 2,000 of its current members, of all ranks, as well as the introduction of a new level of accountability, in the form of an oversight board. The latter prescription has been on the agenda for over two decades but has not been implemented.
Unlike Cressida Dick with Sadiq Khan, General Anderson clearly has the confidence of Prime Minister Andrew Holness and the national security minister, Horace Chang. He should leverage that support for transformative action, rather than, as Inspector George said of Ms Dick, falling into the trap of defensiveness and denial.