Imagine working in an office where the men routinely watch porn and openly call their mates over to look.
Imagine working alongside a colleague who sexually assaults three of his female colleagues on a night out but isn’t sacked, merely offered “advice about his behaviour”. Imagine that you daren’t complain about things like this, for fear of reprisals. Now imagine that these toxic men you work with have power not just over their colleagues but over all of us, including the power to stop cars on the street; and that some of them joke about deliberately targeting pretty female drivers, a practice they call “booty patrol”. Last of all, imagine knowing that whenever a woman dials 999 she runs a risk, however small, of a man like this turning up just when she is at her most acutely vulnerable.
But you don’t have to imagine it; you can just read all about it, in a report published this week by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services, which was commissioned by the then home secretary Priti Patel after the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met police officer. The stories the inspectors unearthed are by now grimly familiar, but what’s unusual about this report is that it goes beyond platitudes about ‘“canteen culture” – the idea that rogue officers flourish where bad behaviour is tolerated – to look at how on earth men like this get into the force in the first place. Did you, like me, still vaguely imagine that having previously being caught groping, flashing, robbing or (in one case) reportedly carrying a gun and being chased by the police would be a barrier to joining the police? Think again.
All wannabe officers are vetted on joining, and at regular intervals through their careers. But of the 725 vetting files the inspectors examined, in 131 the decision was deemed “questionable at best”, and in some cases it gave a green light to applicants with family members involved in organised crime or with criminal records themselves. A wannabe special constable with a juvenile conviction for indecent exposure, involving exposing himself to the same woman seven times by masturbating at his bedroom window after coughing to get her attention, was cleared to join after successfully appealing against previous rejections.
Another candidate passed vetting to become an officer despite a final warning two decades earlier for knocking an 80-year-old woman to the ground and stealing her handbag. So did a wannabe police community support officer cautioned for slapping his partner across her face, and a man investigated five years previously for an alleged sexual assault at a nightclub (the victim later withdrew her complaint, not unusually given the trauma of going to court). According to the report, only 10% of applicants make it through the recruitment process. If this is what gets through, God only knows what’s filtered out.
The inspectors also uncovered some worrying instances of officers with serious black marks against them being allowed to move forces, including one, accused of “improper sexualised touching” of colleagues and members of the public, being granted a transfer after the chief constable overruled the vetting panel, “largely on the grounds that accepting the transferee would make the force more diverse”. (National targets for recruiting more black and minority ethnic officers, introduced after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, were ditched long ago but local police and crime commissioners can still set targets for chief constables.) We have ended up with a police service that rules out anyone with visible tattoos, but might in a pinch consider an erstwhile sex offender.
Why would any force embrace such ticking timebombs within its ranks? Clumsy recruitment practices, the continued trivialisation of sexual offences, and even perhaps corruption spring to mind. But the inspectors concluded that in some cases the willingness to take a punt “may be influenced by the need to meet certain recruitment targets”. Forces under pressure to plug gaps are, in other words, perhaps prone to conclude that beggars can’t be choosers.
In 2019, Patel set a target of boosting officer numbers by 20,000 over three years – at a time of relatively full employment, in what turned out to be the eve of a pandemic, following years of pay freezes and a string of toxic scandals which may well have made careers in policing a tougher sell to idealistic Generation Z.
Even at its best policing is a tough job, requiring the judgment of Solomon, physical courage and high tolerance for risk – to quote the old cliche, officers must run towards what the rest of us would run away from – but never hotheadedness, or the kind of risk-taking behaviours that leaves officers open to corruption.
That’s a very specific personality type, yet some forces don’t actually meet applicants personally until they’re being fitted for uniforms (post-pandemic, the national assessment process has moved online) and some appeared to be in such a hurry they didn’t even pursue references from previous employers. If this report is right – and it echoes the findings of Louise Casey’s recent review of misconduct in the Met – then there may be hundreds or even thousands of officers nationwide who probably shouldn’t be in uniform, and the race must now be on to find them.
But rooting out the rogues is just the first step. Somehow, British policing needs to be helped to pick itself up off the floor afterwards and find ways of persuading good people to join again. If not, it risks descending into a vicious spiral where decent people are put off joining a seemingly toxic institution, while bad ones actively seek it out – and all too often, slip through the net.