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What's special about the Met?


A crisis in policing?


You'd have thought so from the headlines last week after it emerged that six forces out of 43 in England and Wales are on the law enforcement equivalent of the naughty step. HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) belatedly disclosed that the Staffordshire and Wiltshire constabularies had joined Cleveland, Greater Manchester (GMP) and Gloucestershire in the 'engage' phase of monitoring. A leak (which looked like it came from the Home Office) revealed that for the first time in its history the Metropolitan Police was also in 'special measures'.


It's important to point out what this means for policing - and what it doesn't mean.


It means there are specific causes of concern in each force which HMICFRS believes can be addressed only by an improvement plan, close monitoring and support from external organisations, such as the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs' Council. In the smaller constabularies affected, which contain 1,200 to 1,800 officers, the problems should be easier to remedy, through better leadership and focus, while in GMP there is evidence that the improvement plan put in place two years ago under a new chief constable is already starting to work.


What it doesn't mean is that the entire police service is in the grip of a crisis. The proportion of people who have confidence in their local police, while lower than it used to be, was still around the three-quarters mark in 2020, when the Office for National Statistics last tested it. Many organisations would love to have a confidence ranking as high as that.


But that is not to under-estimate the difficulties forces are facing. A decade of budget cuts stripped policing of 21,000 officers and 22,000 civilian staff. Experience and specialist skills were lost. Hundreds of police stations were closed. In many areas, neighbourhood policing was pared back as forces put response above prevention, eroding the vital link between communities and cops. Andy Cooke, the new Chief Inspector of Constabulary who led Merseyside Police during the austerity years, has described the damage as "exceptionally severe" Last month, in an interview for for Policing TV, he told me: "I always said the impact wouldn't be felt over the first two or three years, but it'd be felt five, ten years later on. Because that's what happens when you actually remove large parts of the infrastructure that keep people safe. So the impact is lasting."


It can be boring banging on about cuts but you can't conduct an honest analysis of the state of policing without understanding the scale of what happened. Across the country, reductions in police, prosecution, legal aid and court service budgets, allied to a growth in crimes which are more challenging and complex to investigate, have contributed to a dramatic fall in charging rates and a growing backlog of criminal trials that worsened during the pandemic. The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice would have more credibility if they at least acknowledged the effect of the cuts programme the Government pursued between 2010 and 2019.


In the Met, however, it's a different story: there is undoubtedly a crisis of confidence in the force. The Mayor of London's 'Public Perception Data' show that the proportion of Londoners who believe the Met does a good job in their local area has dropped from two-thirds to under a-half in five years. Only 57% say officers can be relied on to be there when needed compared with 76% in 2017. Cuts have played their part. Scotland Yard felt the impact later than other forces because its budget was largely protected until after the 2012 London Olympics had been safely delivered. Officer numbers then fell by around 2,000 and in 2017 the force embarked on a radical restructuring as it moved away from borough-based policing to larger basic command units. The initiative was designed to save money but it spread responsibility over areas that were far too wide. For example, the four boroughs of Wandsworth, Richmond, Merton and Kingston upon Thames merged to form one policing unit, known as South West, led by a chief superintendent. The problems highlighted by HMICFRS, as it placed the Met into special measures, have their roots in this reorganisation: it blunted effective management and weakened officer supervision. A priority for the next Commissioner must be to review the arrangements and ensure that a new structure is put in place in which every officer has a clear and visible chain of command, with regular support and guidance. Some of the recent scandals, including the abusive and discriminatory messages shared by officers at Charing Cross police station, the shocking failings in the Stephen Port investigation and the strip-searches of children, would arguably not have happened had there been more rigorous supervision.


Leadership at the Met has been found wanting in other respects. Basic shortcomings outlined by HMICFRS in recording crimes, dealing with calls from the public and helping victims suggest systemic problems of management rather than just errors in individual decision-making. Part of the force's problems over recent years has also been the clumsy way in which senior officers have attempted to explain what the Met has been doing and defend its actions when they have been criticised. The leaders the new Commissioner picks must have first-rate communication skills, not only to listen and speak to those they are responsible for, but to deliver messages to the public, via the media. The deputy assistant commissioners and assistant commissioners at Scotland Yard, in particular, need to be more visible and more approachable.


But there is one fundamental change that must now be on the agenda: governance. The Met Commissioner is the only head of a UK police force to be answerable to two politicians - the Home Secretary and the Mayor. Last weekend, Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, who as Sir John Stevens led the Met between 2000 and 2005, described the set-up as a "fudge". He managed to make it work, partly because he was a skilled operator, but also because the two politicians he dealt with were from the same party and in office at a time of investment in policing. If either or both of those ingredients are missing relations risk becoming strained and policing in London suffers.


A better approach would be to have a Commissioner with sole responsibility for London, who is appointed by and accountable to the Mayor; and a separate Commissioner in charge of the national functions of the Met, such as counter-terrorism and Royal protection, who answers to the Home Secretary. The key benefits of separating the two roles would be clearer lines of governance and accountability. It would also give the Commissioner in charge of policing London a real opportunity to bring about the necessary improvements in the force without the burden and distractions of national responsibilities.


As the largest force in the UK the performance of the Metropolitan Police really matters - not just to those living and working in London, but to police officers in other parts of the country too. They say people's perceptions of policing are shaped to some extent by reports of what's happening at Scotland Yard. In other words, the Met - unfairly perhaps - acts as a barometer for the rest of the police service. That is why it is doubly important that Priti Patel and Sadiq Khan put their differences to one side and work together to select and support the new Commissioner in the job of rebuilding the Met.

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