The Met - and its leadership - must change
Over the past few months, as the Metropolitan Police has been buffeted by waves of scandal and criticism, I have been thinking a lot about an encounter I had at New Scotland Yard.
It happened five years ago just after the force had opened its new, glass-fronted headquarters on the Embankment. I'd gone there for a meeting and was waiting with colleagues in reception when a woman in bright-coloured trainers walked in.
Cressida Dick had left the Met two years earlier for an intelligence role at the Foreign Office - so her appearance that morning was something of a surprise, and her casual look even more so; we'd only ever seen her in police uniform and smart work clothes.
But the cheerful outfit matched her mood. Dick was smiling and seemed relaxed, clearly enjoying her Whitehall role but also, I suspect, relishing the prospect of a possible return to the Met. The process to find a successor to Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe was underway and we guessed that was probably why she was there.
Of the four shortlisted candidates for the Commissioner's job, everyone I spoke to at the time thought that the quietly-spoken and widely-respected former head of counter-terrorism was the best person for the role. And she got it, making history as the first female head of the UK's biggest police force.
Dame Cressida (as she is now) could barely contain her delight when she was appointed. At the time of the announcement, in February 2017, she said: "I am thrilled and humbled...I'm looking forward immensely to protecting and serving the people of London and working again with the fabulous women and men of the Met."
In many ways, "thrilled and humbled" sums up Dame Cressida's approach to leading the force where she started her police career in 1983. She loves the Met and has often said as much - more than any other Commissioner I can remember. And she genuinely feels privileged and fortunate to be in the job.
But I have wondered whether she loves the organisation too much and if her undoubted admiration and respect for the people who work there has skewed her approach to dealing with the deeply offensive attitudes and conduct of some of her officers. It is not that she tolerates it - far from it - but that in her efforts to safeguard the force's overall reputation and maintain morale among the wider workforce she has not been as tough, as ruthless, as she could have been in rooting out those responsible for misogyny, bullying, harassment and discrimination within the ranks, behaviour highlighted in the Charing Cross police station report.
When Dame Cressida became Commissioner, the Met needed a leader to champion what it does and boost morale. Sir Bernard (now Lord) Hogan-Howe had gripped the management of the force following several high-profile resignations in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. But he was a 'with me or against me' kind-of boss who left some officers and staff feeling alienated; he was also at the helm during a difficult period when the Met began to make swingeing budget cuts and draw up plans for a radical reorganisation.
Dame Cressida offered a different approach. She praised officers at every opportunity, talked up their work and defended the Met robustly when it was criticised. That is a stance those who work there have no doubt appreciated but it is not always right for the communities they serve. Although individuals accused of misconduct have been investigated under her watch, and in some cases disciplined, until recently there was no attempt to take a meaningful look at the culture, standards, supervision and behaviour which lie at the heart of some of the force's problems. Perhaps she feared what would be found underneath the stone if she turned it over.
The warning signs were certainly there before she took charge. In 2014, investigations following the so-called 'Plebgate' affair exposed how police officers had swapped obscene images while on duty at Downing Street. In 2015, a Black firearms officer Carol Howard, was awarded damages for sexual and racial discrimination after being "singled out and targeted". And in 2016, a detective who worked in the Met's sexual offences, exploitation and child abuse command, Chris Maitland, was jailed for abusing a young girl and making "gruesome" indecent images.
Dame Cressida would have been well aware of these cases and others flagged by the force's internal investigations unit, the Directorate of Professional Standards. I'm sure the emerging findings of the Independent Office for Police Conduct's inquiry into Charing Cross had also been known about before the final report, while the appalling case of Koshka Duff can have come as no surprise to the Met's leadership team. The force had been embroiled in a legal dispute with the university professor for eight years before it finally apologised for subjecting her to "sexist, derogatory and unacceptable" language during a strip-search in 2013.
Belatedly, last October, the Met announced a review into culture and standards in the force - following public revulsion and political pressure after former PC Wayne Couzens was jailed for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard. But it was only this month, after the publication of the Charing Cross report, that Dame Cressida finally made her feelings known to staff, reportedly warning them in a letter that "enough is enough".
The Commissioner's apparent reluctance to hold up a mirror to her workforce is part of a defensive approach which she herself has accepted must change. In August 2021, she wrote to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in response to the independent panel inquiry report into the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan, which had described the Met as "institutionally corrupt". She said: “As an organisation we are proud of the men and women who work for us and the work they do every day serving the public. We do acknowledge that occasionally this can lead to an overly defensive attitude. We accept that as an organisation we could listen more. We could do even more to be - and to show ourselves to be - open and transparent, to explain what we do and why we do it. This is a vital part of gaining and retaining public confidence and trust.”
Since then, however, confidence and trust in the Met have declined further, amid confusion surrounding the force's position on retrospective investigations of alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations. There was a terrible failure to explain why the force let the Cabinet Office take the lead investigating gatherings in Downing Street that highlighted major deficiencies in public engagement and communications.
In September, Dame Cressida's position had looked secure after Patel and London's Mayor, Sadiq Khan, approved a two-year contract extension, to April 2024. When the two politicians made the decision they would have been aware of what was coming down the track: the Wayne Couzens sentencing hearing; inquests into the deaths of four gay men murdered by Stephen Port which heard about dreadful investigative mistakes; the Charing Cross inquiry. If they were not aware, they ought to have been. So, it was somewhat hypocritical to hear Khan warn Dame Cressida after the Charing Cross report "there could be consequences" if she cannot do the job that is expected of her.
Nevertheless, the Commissioner is still in choppy waters. Every decision the force makes is being questioned; each statement scrutinised - and there are hugely difficult moments to come. Some are of the Met's own making. It is a puzzle to me why it has picked a legal battle over the future of Superintendent Robyn Williams, whose case I have written about before. Williams was found guilty at the Old Bailey of possessing an indecent image after she made a serious error of judgment; she was then sacked by a police misconduct panel headed by Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball. But Ball's decision was overturned by the Police Appeals Tribunal which, in a highly critical ruling, found her reasoning to be "thin".
Williams, one of the force's most experienced Black officers who had enjoyed a stellar and blemish-free career until her conviction, was reinstated and, as far as I am aware, no issues have since been reported. You might have thought that the Met would leave things there. But they have begun legal proceedings challenging the Tribunal's ruling and in December Mr Justice Calver granted the force permission for judicial review; a full hearing at the High Court is likely to take place this year though no date has yet been set.
The disciplinary proceedings against Williams were finely balanced. There were compelling arguments on both sides as to whether she should be dismissed or given a final warning. So to contest the carefully considered judgment of the three-member Police Appeals Tribunal, which consisted of a senior employment barrister, an assistant chief constable from an outside force and a former police officer, feels like another instance of institutional defensiveness, a refusal by the Met to admit that its original decision may have been wrong. What it means is that this saga, which has already gone on for four years, will continue for many more months, causing further reputational damage.
Last year, the force revealed that there were 150 serving officers with criminal convictions, including for firearms offences, assault and dangerous driving. Why, out of all of them, is the Met still trying to sack Superintendent Williams? It sits uncomfortably with the case of Detective Chief Inspector James Mason, who was allowed to keep his job despite sending inappropriate messages to a victim of crime. She is currently taking legal action.
Of course the two cases are different, but the contrast between the Met's approach to them suggests it has got its priorities wrong. For too long the organisation's leadership has neglected tackling deep-seated cultural problems. Combating them may cause friction between supervisors and the officers under their command, but so be it.
Dame Cressida Dick couldn't wait to become Commissioner five years ago. When I bumped into her she was brimming with enthusiasm as she prepared for the most important mission of her life. She loves the Met. Now she must show it some tough love if she is to survive in her job - and if the force is to emerge from its current crisis in a stronger state.