What on earth has happened to the police? In recent years the boys in blue (the girls do slightly better, although, as we shall see, not much) have been involved in one shocking episode after another. For years we’ve complained about the police’s chronic inability to prevent crime or detect criminals. But now, resulting largely from a failure by our political class to provide leadership, things have taken an even uglier turn.
It began with the horrific rape and murder two years ago of Sarah Everard, a successful and popular marketing executive, by Wayne Couzens, a serving Metropolitan Police Officer, who’d arrested her on the false pretext of breaching Covid protocols. Couzens, who incarnates the case for capital punishment, was jailed for life. During his trial, it emerged that the Met had twice failed to investigate him for indecent exposure, as had the Kent police for a further offence. Women who quite justifiably protested against this appalling case were then harassed by police, with at least one wrestled to the ground and detained, again for a trumped-up breach of “Covid protocols”. If the Met – then under the control of a woman, Dame Cressida Dick – had wanted to give a masterclass in the art of reverse public relations, it could not have done better.
This case was not the only Met atrocity during Dame Cressida’s tenure. David Carrick, a policeman known to his mates as “Bastard Dave”, confessed to using his position to charm women and win their confidence before abusing them. He admitted to 71 sexual offences, including at least twelve counts of rape, over a seventeen-year period. Apart from that depravity, he apparently enjoyed urinating over his victims, making them drink his urine, and forcing them to clean his house naked. It took until 2021 for one of his victims to have the courage to report him, after which many others came forward.
No wonder Fionnuala Kennedy, the head teacher of Wimbledon High School in the Met police district, has warned the girls in her care to be on their guard if approached by a policeman. She described herself as “breathless with anger” and feeling “defeated” by the “fail[ure] of the Met police to protect girls and women.” If brutes such as Couzens and Carrick were allowed to rape and murder females whose only fault was to meet them while they served in the country’s leading police force, then vetting procedures for police officers are plainly farcical. How many more of these monsters are hiding behind police badges, waiting for their chance? And again, how has this abominable state of affairs come about?
Dame Cressida’s successor, Sir Mark Rowley, has at least had the decency to admit that he cannot promise women that any policeman they meet in London is not a sex offender. Sir Mark has spoken of being “determined to win back Londoners’ trust”. Good luck to him. Numerous disciplinary hearings are promised, which will at least keep those police off the streets for a while, away from women on whom they can prey. But for heaven’s sake, Couzens was even approved to use firearms, which makes a mockery also of the requirements for that level of service. And even after he and Bastard Dave had been deemed to pass muster, did no other officers feel the need to question their behaviour? Or is such conduct now par for the course? If the latter, then the whole lot of them should be kicked into an early and dishonourable retirement.
These grave offences are emblematic of systemic failures that have been allowed to fester by a succession of home secretaries who have not exerted proper control. Asleep at the wheel does not begin to describe the negligence and dereliction of the political class where the police are concerned over recent years, and that necessarily includes dozens of useless civil servants at the Home Office too. And let us not forget that the present Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, is a woman, as was her predecessor, Priti Patel, as was her predecessor-but-one, Amber Rudd, and her predecessor, Theresa May. It seems that even women have not been able or willing to use their political power to protect other women and girls against predatory men.
Sadly, the failures keep coming. The nation was recently gripped by the tragic story of Nicola Bulley, who went missing one bright winter’s morning while walking her dog by the river, after taking her children to school. Every nutter in Britain developed a theory of what had happened, multiplying exponentially the torture for Ms Bulley’s family, as did the pantomime inability of Lancashire Constabulary to work out events for themselves. The poor woman’s body was found in the river three weeks later by a member of the public. By that stage, a panicking Lancashire force had invaded Ms Bulley’s privacy by revealing intimate details of her alleged mental health and gynaecological issues, as if that was somehow going to assist their efforts to find her. In that moment, quite rightly, public disgust with the local police tipped over the edge. Every woman imagined the impact of her own confidential details being spread all over the media; every decent man envisaged it being his own wife, daughter, mother or sister. Again, it was a woman police officer, Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith, who gave the notorious press conference in which Ms Bulley was described as “high risk”. It all begs the question of whether a police career can dehumanise some women to the same extent it does some men.
It’s a common middle-class complaint that the police excel at sending out speeding tickets (more efficiently these days because they have cameras to do it), but when it comes to catching burglars, muggers or car thieves, “Plod” has become an accurate job description. Residents’ Associations hire private security guards for their smart estates because the police are hopeless at preventing crime; this is a resource beyond the means of those on council estates. The working class, who are the main victims of crime, appear to have long since given up complaining.
Meanwhile, police authority is disappearing. Eight years ago, 26 per cent of reported public threats, abuse or harassment were prosecuted; today the figure is three per cent. Bike theft is at epidemic proportions in several parts of the country and has spurred the creation of vigilante groups. To give just a handful of examples, in Hampshire there were 754 bike thefts logged in the three months to September 2022, and not a single charge was brought. Perhaps more astonishingly, Thames Valley had 340 reports of blackmail in the same period, and charged no one. Nor was anyone charged for the 66 attempted burglaries in Warwickshire for those three months, nor for the 396 reports of non-life-threatening arson in Gwent. No wonder crime is a growing career choice.
The police defend themselves by saying that the increase in “complex” investigations means they lack the resources to deal with lesser offences. However, as the Bulley case shows, they can’t even get those right, and were it not for a member of the public, she would probably still be undiscovered today.
I stress that I’m not without sympathy: I know what a horrible job the police have to do, especially with the government refusing to take drug-related crime seriously. Officers who behave properly and conscientiously deserve their early retirements on good pensions. But they cannot function without the respect of the public, which they have now lost. The fault lies at the door of the Home Office for not laying down the standards required, paying for them, and ensuring strong leadership. Change requires a revolution, and the Home Secretary had better start one. Otherwise, there will be a revolution from below: we are inches away from people seeing the police as a threat, not a protector, and readily taking the law into their own hands.
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham