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Crooked Cops: a century of bribes, beatings and bungs from the British police

This article is over 12 years, 11 months old
Simon Basketter on a century of bribes, beatings and bungs – the Murdoch scandal is just the tip of the iceberg
Issue 2262

The phrase “If you want to know the time, ask a policeman” is informative. It has nothing to do with the police being helpful. It came from their reputation for stealing the watches of Victorian drunks.

Police corruption lies at the heart of the News International scandal. We are assured that only a small number of officers are involved. Whenever a cop is caught out we are told it is a case of “one bad apple”. But the stench of the rotten barrel is a very old one.

Since the founding of the first force in 1829, violence, corruption and the police have gone together:

  • In 1833, a coroner’s jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide when a policeman was killed during a riot of workers. They said the police were ferocious and brutal without provocation.
  • Officers were found guilty of raping women in police cells in 1843.
  • Police killed a fellow officer for refusing to take bribes—then framed someone else for the murder in 1846.
  • London police trained teams of pickpockets to work for them in 1850.
  • In 1877, it was revealed that a pair of swindlers who took huge bets on horse races that never happened had bribed police. The newly appointed police chief set up the CID—a body of professional detectives—to try eliminate corruption. The opposite happened. He complained, “The duties are distasteful and repugnant to the better class of men. They frequently cause unnecessary drinking and compel them to resort to tricky practices.”

James Morton wrote in his book Bent Coppers, “In accepting bribes, suppressing evidence and giving advanced notice of raids, the behaviour of the officers involved was to provide a blueprint for behaviour by corrupt policemen in that CID and other detective forces for the next 115 years.”

There are rare occasions when the police rebel. A section of police struck as part of the huge working class revolt across Britain in 1919. But that strike was broken with bribes and the army. Police unions were banned, and there was a concerted effort to separate the police from the rest of society—by housing them separately, for example.

The supposed golden era of the police in the 1950s continued the crooked tradition. In 1955 the Daily Mail reported “a vast amount of bribery and corruption among officers attached to a West End station.”

In the 1960s detectives in London were caught out routinely “fitting” people up.

When accused of using a “rhino whip” on suspects, the police initially said their victims were sado-masochists, then that they injured themselves.

There is a repeated story here.

Scandal leads to closing ranks and the odd scapegoat being charged, a larger number of officers retiring or transferring and an inquiry that produces a whitewash.

Miscarriages of justice also follow a pattern.

Media rage against the accused, police corruption and judicial connivance with that corruption combine to create a general atmosphere in which it is almost impossible for a jury not to convict.

David Oluwale was last seen alive on 17 April 1969—being beaten by police officers in Leeds. Two weeks later his body was pulled out of the River Aire.

A subsequent investigation revealed the horror of David’s treatment over months at the hands of two police officers—and which many more officers were complicit in.

It led to the only convictions to date of British police for a police-related death, or death in custody—although they were for assault and not manslaughter or murder.

When customs officers investigated police officers in the 1970s, they found police imported and sold drugs, having employed their own couriers to bring them into the country.


An even bigger scandal was Operation Countryman, involving the City of London police.

An investigation into a series of armed robberies led to evidence that police officers had set them up. One cop admitted, “All the blokes on the robbery squad had a drink in it [earned money from it] going right to the top.”

When it came to a trial all the cops were acquitted, as no officer would testify.

Stoke Newington Police Station in Hackney, east London, was infamous in the 1980s and 1990s for police corruption and racism. The station was also notorious for a series of violent deaths of black people in custody.

The Hackney Community Defence Campaign uncovered 130 cases of police brutality.

And so it continues to the present day,

Taking money is routine for officers. According to one detective, “You either nick someone, fix someone up or you earn from them. That’s the first thing you learn as a officer.”

Stealing on the beat—known as “shopping”—is widespread. One cop said, “It’s not so much Christmas as all December. The fact is, you don’t have to pay for it.”

How breaking the law is central to enforcing it

Being “bent for themselves”—cops taking bribes from criminals to suppress evidence, and skimming off profits from rackets—is usually frowned on. But being “bent for the job” is a different matter.

In 1972 Sir Robert Mark became Met commissioner. He said that “the CID were the most routinely corrupt organisation in London”.

But he wasn’t condemning the corruption. He went on to say, “Let me make it quite clear that I am one of those who believe that if the criminal law and the procedures relating to it were applied strictly according to the book, as a means of protecting society it would collapse within a few days.”

Paul Condon, head of the Met during most of the 1990s, coined the phrase “noble cause corruption”—the idea that some police justifiably “bend the rules” to get a conviction when they “knew” the accused was guilty, but had no proof.

Apparently that’s why they plant evidence and beat or bully confessions from the innocent.

One cop said, “At every station there would be guys who excelled as scriptwriters.” In his experience officers would leave the notebooks blank until a “scriptwriter” provided everyone with “a carbon copy of the statement.”

The police live surrounded by crime. They have the best criminal contacts.

Colleagues are bound to silence out of loyalty, and the judicial system tends to believe everything they say, even when they have been proven guilty.

They are encouraged to break the law and lie as part of their job. There is pressure to get results and cut corners to get convictions.

They are encouraged to act brutally to those who challenge the system. That is why they act to reinforce and adopt the bigotry and prejudice of society—the cops secure a racist society, so they operate in an institutionally racist way.

They learn to ignore the law because the law is ultimately irrelevant to the people who run society.

The powerful employ the police to protect their own property and privilege from the rest of us, and they don’t care about how it is done.

The justice system is a reflection of the society it protects. The system itself is inherently unjust, overwhelmingly favouring the rich against the poor.

The strings are pulled by the rich and powerful, the forces of the state, and the media. The accused are poor, without influence and power. That is why they end up framed, beaten or dead.

Daniel Morgan: More shady News Corp bribes

Daniel Morgan was found in a pub car park in Sydenham, south London, with an axe in his head in 1987. He worked as a private detective.

Scotland Yard interviewed Rebekah Brooks about the case in 2002, when she was editor of News of the World.

She was told that senior staffer Alex Marunchak had run a “surveillance” operation on behalf of private investigator Jonathan Rees and police detective Sid Fillery.

The two men were suspected (later cleared) of murdering Morgan.

The surveillance job targeted DCS David Cook, who was on the police team investigating Morgan’s murder.

Marunchak paid £150,000 of News Corp’s money to Rees for information—and may have harvested a “rake-off” himself.

When the Yard asked Brooks why the paper was harassing Cook, she said they were investigating allegations that he was having an affair. The woman in question was his wife.

A raft of police officers took money to get evidence for the tabloids. And some were involved in drug smuggling as well.

Rees was jailed for seven years in 2000 for planting cocaine on a woman in order to discredit her during divorce proceedings.

The News of the World rehired him after his release.

And that was just one investigation of one private investigator.

The scale of systematic use of bribery by the cops is yet to be fully revealed.

Stephen Lawrence: Police racism and corruption meant justice was never done

A web of corruption and racism infected the investigation into the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence.

The trail goes back to criminals from south east London connected to the 1983 Brinks Mat gold bullion robbery. Those involved included Kenny Noye—alleged to have corrupt links to police officers.

A Flying Squad officer who investigated links between the Brinks Mat gang and police was prevented from giving evidence at the Lawrence inquiry.

He said that this was done because “there are links between south east London criminal families and policemen, senior policemen, that go way back… and the Yard couldn’t afford for any of this to come out during the Lawrence inquiry”.

Gary Dobson and David Norris will stand trial for Stephen’s murder in November.

Cardiff Three: ‘I was treated like an animal’

A trial of ex-cops is taking place over the case of the Cardiff Three—three men wrongfully jailed for the murder of Lynette White. They were freed on appeal in 1992.

In 2003 Jeffrey Gafoor admitted the murder and was jailed for life.

Eight ex-cops deny conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Two others deny perjury.

Angela Psaila gave evidence in the original trial. She told Swansea Crown Court last week about being interviewed by police: “There was a lot of shouting and they kept on telling me I had been inside the flat when the murder took place.

“I made it clear from the beginning that I had been babysitting. I wasn’t there but they would not have it. As far as they were concerned I was there.

“The police knew what they were doing. I felt like a dog being beaten. When I asked to leave they said ‘no’. When I asked for a solicitor they said ‘no’.

“I was being treated like an animal.

“I didn’t feel I could argue with these men. I had no choice. I had to go. I said to myself: ‘You had better do what you are told to do.’” The trial is ongoing.

Karl Chapman

West Yorkshire police took a key murder trial witness to a brothel, paid him, and let him take drugs in their company in a “shocking and disgraceful” conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, a Supreme Court ruling revealed last week.

Supergrass and convicted robber Karl Chapman had sex with an officer, socialised at officers’ homes and visited pubs while in custody.

Chapman received special treatment because he was the main prosecution witness in a murder case.

The judgement said several “very high rank” officers were involved.

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