September 27 2023

‘A matter of semantics rather than substance’

‘A matter of semantics rather than substance’

Pic: Patrick Maguire
Red Cell: Patrick Maguire from Proof magazine, issue 4

Accountability is one of those irresistible principles of governance. It stands alongside other broadly defined precepts such as transparency, integrity, effectiveness and so on. Its allure lies in the fact that no one can argue it ought not to apply to the actions of public authorities. But what makes accountability such a pressing concern extends beyond the exacting scrutiny it entails, to the very concept of duty-bearing, and to the idea that acknowledging a problem is often the first step towards solving it. Speaking truth to power has its own kryptonite: where the mere recognition of wrongdoing by duty-bearers is so contested that the impetus for reform becomes illusory rather than actual. Accountability becomes a matter of semantics rather than substance.

In many ways, the idea of accountability is at the very core of policing in any democratic society. The notion of ‘policing by consent’ is rooted in the belief that for the police service to be effective, it must enjoy the support of the public in its actions. The role of this consent crystallizes most visibly in the police disciplinary system. The public, by having the right to complain about the conduct of officers, implicitly accept that they will be governed by forces who not only maintain and enforce professional standards across their ranks, but acknowledge when breaches have occurred following robust investigation and inquiry.

The centrality of this facet of policing to the maintenance of public confidence in law enforcement is perhaps one of many reasons why Baroness Casey’s review of the Metropolitan Police Service has generated such a visceral reaction from individuals across the political spectrum, within policing and amongst civil society. Clocking in at 363 pages, the final report of the review, as summarised by Baroness Casey in her foreword, ‘makes a finding of institutional racism, sexism and homophobia in the Met.’ The review placed particular emphasis on the role played by the ‘culture of denial’ within the force; rather than embracing or learning from its mistakes, ‘it looks for, and latches onto, small flaws in any criticism, only accepting reluctantly that any wrong-doing has occurred after incontrovertible evidence has been produced.’

To describe the reaction by stakeholders in policing to the report as divided would be an understatement. The National Black Police Association, an organisation which supports Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) staff and officers across forces in the United Kingdom, welcomed the report from Baroness Casey in its entirety and noted that it highlighted ‘long standing issues which our association has raised with those in positions of power and influence over many years.’ By contrast, the Metropolitan Police Federation (MPF) – the staff association to which every constable, sergeant, inspector and chief inspector in the Metropolitan Police Service belongs, totalling more than 30,000 officers – stated that ‘the narrative in the media and from some police leaders and politicians over recent weeks that police officers should be guilty until proven innocent is not acceptable.’ The MPF’s implicit categorisation of the report as applying to ‘a small number of individuals’ and its pledge to protect officers ‘traumatised by the constant attacks to their proud profession’ was summarily criticised by Abimbola Johnson, a barrister and chair of the Independent Scrutiny & Oversight Board of the Police Race Action Plan.

Yet it is perhaps the reaction of the Met Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, in his interview with Sky News that underscores the persistence of the ‘culture of denial’ and the slipperiness of accountability within the force. On one hand, he conceded that he ‘absolutely accept[ed] the diagnosis that Louise Casey comes up with’ and accepted that ‘we [the Met] have racists, misogynists and homophobes in the organisation.’ Indeed, Rowley appeared to depart from the ‘bad apples’ approach to police misconduct and accepted that there were ‘systemic failings, management failings and cultural failings’. Yet when pressed on the reason why he would not use the term “institutional”, as was explicitly stated in the report, the Commissioner went on the defensive, noting that the term ‘institutional’ was ‘very ambiguous’ and that it was ‘pointless to argue about definitions.’ In support of this contention, Rowley argued that the definition of institutional racism used by Sir William Macpherson in the final report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry differed from that used by Baroness Casey in her most recent review.

In the absence of a clear and unambiguous definition of ‘institutional’ racism, sexism and homophobia, there will inevitably be disagreement about the extent of the problem. Yet what matters is not what precise iteration of institutional prejudice exists within the Metropolitan Police, but rather the fact that a perception of the problem exists. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, Baroness Casey’s review amounted to an independent and impartial investigation into the standards of professional behaviour and culture within the police force. Mark Rowley’s acceptance of the Casey Review on one hand and his defensiveness surrounding his refusal to use the word “institutional” on the other only corroborates its findings in relation to the ‘culture of denial’ within the Metropolitan Police: the emphasis on small flaws in any criticism, and the subsequent abrogation of responsibility until more cases of egregious wrongdoing come to light.

The role played by the defensiveness of law enforcement in the facilitation of police misconduct has not gone unnoticed. In 1999, the Macpherson Report explicitly noted that institutional racism ‘persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence and causes by policy, example, and leadership.’ Macpherson further warned that ‘without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail as part of the ethos or culture of the organisation.’ The Casey Review only illustrates how this process of denial has perpetuated various other forms of discrimination across the full range of administrative and operational activities within the Metropolitan Police.

In response to the findings of the report, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said that ‘this must be a watershed moment for policing in London.’ The disjunctured reaction from stakeholders in policing does little to quell fears that this moment may be illusory rather than actual.