Blog: Met sexism exposes a ‘we know best’ attitude which risks betraying police principles
24 Feb 2022
As the Home Secretary Priti Patel searches for a replacement for Cressida Dick as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Peter Csemiczky, partner in the Serious and General Crime department, argues that the various sexism scandals Dick oversaw are symptomatic of a more fundamental problem at the heart of the Met.
Cressida Dick’s departure as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has led some to question to what extent a toxic work culture within the force enabled the sexism scandals which have done so much damage to the force’s reputation.
Given the number and nature of the failings in cases such as those of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, Stephen Port, and the damning IOPC report into behaviour at Charing Cross Police Station, it was inevitable that Dick had to step aside.
But these scandals did not emerge from nowhere. They are, in my view, the symptoms of a deeper problem within the Met: one which requires a complete rethink of how the force operates.
On 13th March 2021, a public vigil held on Clapham Common in south London to commemorate Sarah Everard – who was murdered ten days earlier by serving Met officer Wayne Couzens – descended into chaos. Multiple women were arrested.
Commissioner Dick’s response to the resulting storm of criticism was telling. In a press statement she explained ‘my officers’ were put in ‘an invidious position’ at the vigil, because, she claimed, of the health risk posed by a group of peaceful women attending a demonstration outside.
There was no apology. Just defence. Dick’s comments revealed a mindset in which the police and the communities it is meant to serve are disconnected entities, with mutually exclusive interests.
Six months later, on the occasion of Couzens’ conviction for kidnap, rape and murder, Dick issued another public statement.
This time she did apologise, but what for was not clear. She made no mention of any issues within the Met which may have contributed to Couzens’ offending (something which will be examined at public inquiry later this year). Indeed, far from admitting any failings – and in stark contrast to the evidence of Couzens’ offending – Dick’s statement claimed the Met was ‘full of people who are good, who work all their lives to protect others.’ She went on:
‘All of us in the Met are sickened, angered and devastated by this man’s truly dreadful crimes. Everyone in policing feels betrayed.’
Here again, we see the expression of an institutional solipsism. Yes: good officers inside the Met surely did feel betrayed by Couzens’ actions, but for many outside the closed ranks of her force, it was the Met who had done the betraying. The Met are not the victims here.
Dick’s questionable comments in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder were nothing new. Indeed, they form part of a worrying pattern.
Speaking after the revelations that two male officers had taken pictures of the scene where sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry lay fatally stabbed, Dick’s apology was so heavily qualified as to be no apology at all. She said:
“If those officers’ actions have added to the family’s unimaginable distress then I apologise“.
Similarly, a report into the unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan in 1987 accused the Met of being “institutionally corrupt” and singled out Dame Cressida for refusing to grant access to information. She apologised and moved on.
‘We know best’ attitude
Dick’s robust defence of her officers from outside criticism no doubt won her internal support, but in my view it helped foster a toxic work culture inside the force that may be summarised as ‘we know best’.
It was this ‘we know best’ culture which enabled police officers to feel free to express the most appalling prejudices on social media or to take photos of the bodies of murder victims they were supposed to protect.
This attitude has seeped through in other ways too, perhaps most notably – and, in terms of its broader impact, most worryingly – when investigating complaints of crime.
My experience as a criminal lawyer is that the Met routinely mischaracterise members of the public as ‘the enemy’. Those who have concerns about police behaviour and anyone accused of a crime are routinely disbelieved, ignored and treated without respect.
Officers seem to believe that their role is to prove an allegation, rather than to investigate impartially to obtain evidence that looks both towards and away from a suspect’s guilt. That duty is enshrined in the statutory oath taken by all officers on appointment when they promise to discharge their duties ‘with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people.‘
That they fail to do undermines the rule of law.
The Lessons of Henriques
The writing has been on the wall for Dick since at least 2016, when Sir Richard Henriques produced his independent review of the Met’s handling of non-recent sexual offences investigations, and in particular the Operation Midland scandal in which outlandish allegations by fantasist Carl Beech were considered by the force to be “credible and true”.
Sir Richard made a total of 25 recommendations for improvement in his report. They included the following:
- ‘The instruction to “believe a ‘victim’s’ account” should cease. It should be the duty of an officer interviewing a complainant to investigate the facts objectively and impartially and with an open mind from the outset of the investigation.’
- ‘Throughout the investigative and judicial process those who make complaints should be referred to as complainants not victim’.
- ‘In future, the public should be told that “if you make a complaint we will treat it very seriously and investigate it thoroughly without fear or favour”’.
All the above, of course, are fundamental principles of proper policing. That the Met needed to be reminded of them should be worrying enough. But the Met’s response to Henriques was even more concerning. According to a 2020 report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), the Met, under Dick’s leadership, did not do enough to learn the lessons of Henriques, and only started to act on his recommendations three years later.
Last year Commissioner Dick wrote to Sir Richard to update him on the changes she had made in the wake of his report. On the issue of belief and false allegations, she explained that she had updated the Met’s guidance to officers to be: ‘We will believe a victim such that we record the crime allegation. From that point we will investigate impartially, and with an open mind to establish the facts.’
It is notable that Dick continued to use the word ‘victim’ in her letter, in direct contravention of another of Henriques’ recommendations.
Return to Impartiality
At the time of writing, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan and the Home Secretary Priti Patel are seeking suitable candidates for next Met commissioner. There are reports they may look outside the police to bring in someone with a fresh perspective.
Whoever takes on the job would do well to remember that one of the fundamental reasons Dick lost her job was the fear that her stubborn defensiveness would lead to a breakdown in public faith in the force.
The key to resolving this issue is surely for the Met to tear down the psychological walls that it has erected around itself and recognise that is part of the society it polices – both the good element and the bad.
In my view, it is only by doing this that the Met can hope to rid itself of the ‘we know best’ attitude that has contributed to the recent scandals, poisoned its relationship with the public and runs the risk, if left unchecked, of corrupting its soul.