Blog: ‘Banter’ and police prejudice: why we need a statutory public inquiry into police culture
11 Feb 2022
As Met Commissioner Cressida Dick loses her job due to a series of sexism scandals in the country’s largest police force, Civil Litigation solicitor Ellie Cornish sets out in a blog why now is the time for a full, statutory inquiry into the culture of UK policing.
The past year has seen an apparently endless stream of news reports about police misogyny, racism and prejudicial behaviour: a litany of scandals which led to Met Commissioner Cressida Dick losing her job.
From the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by firearms officer Wayne Couzens last March to the IOPC’s recent report on lewd and discriminatory behaviour at Charing Cross police station, barely a month went by without a new report of unacceptable police conduct.
In some cases, officers tried to justify their actions on the basis that they took place in a permissive ‘banter’ culture. This – plus the frequency and severity of these incidents – makes a compelling argument for a complete rethink of police culture.
It is time for a statutory public inquiry in the culture of policing in this country.
Twelve months of shame
In addition to the Couzens and Charing Cross cases mentioned above, the past twelve months have seen:
– Met police officers Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis jailed for sending photographs of murdered sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman to colleagues and referring to them as ‘dead birds’.
– Avon and Somerset police officer Daniel Wallwork sacked for sharing a photo of dead woman with a colleague.
– The Met forced to apologise to philosophy professor Koshka Duff for using “sexist, derogatory and unacceptable” behaviour during a strip search, only as a result of the incident being captured on CCTV.
– Met officer David Carrick charged with 29 offences in relation to eight women, including 13 counts of rape.
– Met detective James Mason found to have breached professional standards by sexually harassing mugging victim Kristina O’Connor.
The ‘banter’ defence
The IOPC’s recent Operation Hotton report into misogyny, racism, homophobia, and harassment at Charing Cross police station revealed that behaviour considered by officers to constitute ‘banter’ included:
- Messages about attending a festival dressed as sex offenders and a molested child
- Messages such as “You fucking gay!” and “Fuck you bender”
- Messages such as ”I would happily rape you”, and ”If I was single I would happily chloroform you”.
The IOPC reported that when victims of these kinds of communications challenged the perpetrators about their experience “there appeared to be attempts made to push any comments or behaviour into a ‘grey zone’”.
The report went on to conclude that “this meant that everything that happened in this zone was reduced to being banter, or a joke or game, or it was just a misunderstanding”.
We should be clear, as a society, that this ‘banter’ (so often prefaced with the word ‘harmless’ or ‘friendly’) is unacceptable. It is bullying which normalises, and thus excuses, attitudes which, in turn, cause harmful practices.
That such attitudes can exist in an organisation responsible for preventing and detecting crime on behalf of everyone, regardless of gender, should be enough to trigger immediate organisational change, its implications for female suspects and victims of crime being so clear.
‘Nothing new here‘
Of course, the existence of these sorts of attitudes among police officers is nothing new.
One difference between now and the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s, however, is that these views are often being expressed on social media, where they can be recorded.
Unlike a comment made in a police station canteen or the pub, mobile phone text messages, WhatsApp chats, Facebook messages and the like are recordable, and can be used as evidence.
A statutory public inquiry
I agree with the Centre for Women’s Justice and Women’s Equality Party Government that the Government should establish a statutory public inquiry into British policing. The vehicle for this already exists, in the Sarah Everard Inquiry, which could be converted to a full statutory public inquiry by the Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Patel has not ruled out launching a “major inquiry” into policing, in the vein of that which examined institutional racism in the police and the death of Stephen Lawrence. However, she has said she wants to “find out what on earth is going on” through a series of existing smaller investigations before deciding what to do next.
This is not good enough.
The public interest in holding a full statutory public inquiry could not be greater nor the need more urgent. Women account for over half of the population and they cannot trust institutions which treat them with such contempt, be they a victim of crime or a suspect.
A statutory public inquiry would enable interest groups to be given core participant status and access to important disclosure, so as to bring their expertise to bear and make submissions. Sarah Everard’s family would be entitled to legal representation, should they want it. The Met has shown, for example, in the non-statutory Daniel Morgan inquiry, that they cannot simply be expected to provide their full cooperation and candour voluntarily. A statutory public inquiry would bring the requisite powers to compel witnesses and gather relevant evidence.
So many, and so great, have been the police failings over the past year that the ‘bad apple’ defence deployed by the Met in the Couzens case does not hold water.
In my view, as a solicitor who specialises in holding the police to account for its officers’ poor conduct, only a statutory public inquiry would comprehensively expose the systemic problems in British policing and establish sustainable ways to solve them, to the benefit of everyone.