Westminster, London

No, You Can Trust the Police: Thoughts on the Ellison Report and Policing

The easy response to the findings of the Ellison Inquiry is that it proves a general negative about the police generally or the Metropolitan Police Service specifically.

I get the emotional responses. Nevertheless, these events in fact demonstrate the opposite. This is not to say that the errors did not occur and problems did not exist. Neither do I mean to suggest that they do not require redress. Of course that must happen. But none of this sustains a position of universal distrust. Furthermore and crucially, these events can inspire the opposite response and be the means to progress.

Turning first to the new information, to be fair a close reading of even the Summary of Findings suggests a more nuanced picture than is portrayed in the news. It is enough to point out, for example, that the issue of corruption covered in the report went only to a specific and somewhat rarefied portion of the Met or its work, not the force as a whole. But for the moment we will take the report’s findings as reasonable and mostly correct.

First, the findings demand perspective. It must be accepted that in any given population there will be bad eggs. (Crassly put, it is the Jackass Rule.) Furthermore, there is no escaping Murphy’s Law or that for every so many events there will be mistakes and bad action. This state of things is inevitable, but does not define the whole. The individuals who comprise the vast majority in any given population (including the police services) are decent to good and even often excellent, and most of their efforts are well within the limits of what society can tolerate. Thus, Ellison can stand and the Met can still deserve the trust of the people.

Next, given the first point, although it may seem as though there are many problems with policing, this is due to the oversight and public relations functions and not to a greater rate or intensity of occurrence. This process of review and revelation is a very good thing for society and a very necessary thing for policing by consent. Bear in mind, however, that if any segment of society were held to such account the results would not differ. Thus, if policing must be (and is) rigorously policed, then we also must be realistic about the fact that the bad will be found and made public. A “zero defects” requirement is not a viable option.

Accepting, then, that there will always be some bad news (within a vast sea of good and proper behavior and success), it is not fair, correct or productive to use that fact as a club with which to bludgeon all officers or sully entire institutions. The alienation of the individuals who serve and serve well is the consequence and is to the detriment of all. The title for this piece was inspired by The Times headline of the opposite meaning, a blanket indictment of all, which shouted to me early Friday morning. I further noted in the television coverage that the stock footage for this story prominently featured images of uniformed officers walking the streets, entirely unrepresentative of the actual story but unequivocally indicative of the vast bulk of the force. Imagine the furore if the criminal activities of a small percentage were used to sully an entire group? Ah yes, no imagination is necessary. We know that racial profiling for criminality is odious – upon reflection it ought to be clear that the approach is similarly tainted when used against any population.

More importantly, where the desired behaviour by members is to self police, protecting the whole against the sins of the few is necessary. Retribution for whistle blowing is the obvious usual obstacle to the act. And yet, equally as chilling to the proclivity of good people to step forward to speak out when wrong has occurred is the fear that such revelations will be used to taint the efforts or reputations of all. To encourage police officers to do the right thing in the face of wrongdoing, not only must they be protected from the wrath of the institution, but also the institution and its people beyond the wrongdoing must be protected from the undue wrath of the public and government. Taking recent revelations on their own would suggest major problems. However, pitting them against the millions of man hours of policing work done annually shifts the perspective. Police officers must be able to trust that the majority will be protected and not tainted on the way to rooting out problems.

And so, as I view the meaning of the independent review it is very important that it delivers on a mighty promise of civil society governed by laws. In this case, even after the passage of decades, the institution and its personnel remain responsible for their actions. To be held to such account is more than most could withstand. Whether the path from here is progress and reform or alienation and mistrust on both sides depends as much upon the willingness of the public and government to moderate the wholesale condemnation of all as on the willingness of the police and its organizations to accept the need for change. If not as easy, then, the better response is to regret the bad but value its identification. Such a stance can open the door to a healthier dialogue between policing and society to the improvement of the former, comfort of the latter and respect of all. A virtuous cycle.

It is right and proper to keep a watchful eye upon the organs of the state and government. They must necessarily exist, but whether they serve or distress society is dependent upon both vigilance and tolerance.

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4 thoughts on “No, You Can Trust the Police: Thoughts on the Ellison Report and Policing

  1. davidbfpo says:

    What is remarkable is that just a few years ago the official police “line” on accountability was that the UK police were incredibly accountable. To the criminal courts, to parliament via the Home Secretary, via complaints investigation and locally to partly (indirectly) elected police authorities.

    Under all these spotlights what happened? Each of us would have a list of local, regional and national incidents or policy decisions, from the mundane to serious dependent on your outlook.

    Of late the “line” in official police statements, often via ACPO (senior officers group), state that ‘openness and transparency’ dominate.

    Plus a few nudges that the new, directly elected police & crime commissioners (PCC) now have responsibility for giving the police strategic direction. Though just where that direction sits with ‘operational independence’ is not “set in stone”.

    The simple fact is that the police service ONLY responds to external pressure to change. That pressure is all too often from legislation – ECHR comes to mind, employment tribunals or civil legal action, funding decisions (set nationally) and reviews, such as the Bichard Report. The IPCC has a part too, primarily in publishing ‘lessons learnt’ and just maybe some of its investigations.

    Many, if not all, of the current issues refer to the historical practices of elite units – in particular the focus of the Ellison review, specialist undercover officers working in the public order field.

    Maybe the individual undercover officers made bad decisions – by today’s standards – even undertook criminal acts and so if convicted – in court – will suffer a loss of liberty. What about those who authorized their use, managed their use and kept records (plus destroyed them). Will they be placed under the spotlight, even be prosecuted? I have m’ doubts.

  2. Jill S. Russell says:

    “Maybe the individual undercover officers made bad decisions – by today’s standards – even undertook criminal acts and so if convicted – in court – will suffer a loss of liberty. What about those who authorized their use, managed their use and kept records (plus destroyed them). Will they be placed under the spotlight, even be prosecuted? I have m’ doubts.”

    It is exactly to get at the last objective that I argue for a moderated emotional response to the findings. “You can’t trust the police” as a response to the inquiry is not effective external pressure. It offers no incentive for the mostly ethical people within the institution to act, and without that sort of support the reforms you will get will be political and disdained by the practitioners.

    There is a lot in civil military relations that bears here. The obvious points are always about civilian control of the armed forces and the latter’s requirements to submit graciously and not to become odious to the society. However, of equal importance is that government and society have an understanding of and certain respect for what it is that these organizations do. It all stays on track only when both sides of the interaction are working correctly.

    This latest review highlighted issues to be addressed. If everyone is either angry and shouting or defensive then nothing good will come of it.

  3. Habeas Corpus says:

    Maybe you’re right Jill, but most people won’t read the inquiry report, will rely on media soundbites and judge accordingly. Just like most important decisions (military spending, EU everything, economic policy, healthcare, education e.t.c.)

    Using the example of economics, rationality does not equate to behavioural outcomes. Likewise rationality is unlikely to be reflected in real world opinion of the Met. Just as ALL bankers are greedy fraudsters, ALL politicians are house-flipping hypocrites, and, for the moment, ALL policemen are…?

    If anything, history does not reflect well on the “…willingness of the public and government to moderate the wholesale condemnation of all…” once a deed is write large in the minds of the public. Short term interests prevail in politics.

  4. Jill Sargent Russell says:

    Habeas, I am a child of Martin Luther King, I believe in and know the power of reasonable – which I would submit is an entirely different thing from rational, most importantly it lacks the smugness of rationality’s sense of always being right. Reasonable lacks arrogance, is the very opposite of it. You cannot say no to reasonable forever, eventually it will overtake you. It does require perseverence, though. And all it takes for reasonable to fail is for good people to be too cynical.

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