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Why the Met cannot be reformed

The Metropolitan Police won’t rid itself of institutional racism, sexism and homophobia—and it’s down to more than the force’s overwhelmingly white, male make-up, says Sheila McGregor
Dalian Atkinson police state

The Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829 in response to the growth of the working class

The ruling class faces a fundamental problem. It claims the cops “police by consent”, but the majority of Londoners have lost faith in the capital’s force. Trust in the police across Britain dropped from 86 percent in 2016 to 66 percent in 2022. But in London, it fell from 70 percent to 45 percent, and the gap in the lack of trust among black and white Londoners is closing.

Louise Casey’s report last month showed an institution riddled with racism, sexism and homophobia. Her investigations bear out the finding of institutional racism in the McPherson report in 1999 that followed the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, and 2021 inquiry into the investigations into Daniel Morgan’s murder that slammed the Met as “institutionally corrupt”. 

Casey is totally committed to the police and believes “we have to be able to have faith in the police”. She believes the authorities need to restore trust between Londoners and the Met so they can reestablish “policing by consent”, and has set a timetable for reform. And, failing sufficient progress with reviews at two years and five years, the Met should be disbanded in its current form.

However, there are three barriers to any real reform of the Met. The first is the mismatch between the institution and the population of London. The second is who is driving the racism, misogyny and homophobia. And thirdly—most fundamental of all—is what the real purpose of policing is in society.

London “is more diverse in terms of nationalities, ethnic and faith groups, and sexuality” than other cities. “The majority of the population are not from white British ethnic backgrounds, one in five do not have English as their main language, and London has greater extremes of wealth and poverty than other parts of Britain,” the Casey review says. “In contrast, Met officers are 82 percent White and 71 percent male, and the majority do not live in the city they police.” 

MO19, the Specialist Firearms Command, is lacking neither funds nor resources from weapons to gyms. Officers are allowed to “game the system” to get overtime that involves staying in hotels. MO19 is 90 percent male and 92 percent white. Casey herself observed sexist practices and quoted one officer saying, “It’s the most toxic, racist, sexist place I’ve ever worked…it’s just an unbelievable place”.

At the same time, the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements and the upsurge against sexism in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder have radicalised many people. Casey writes “Significant societal shifts are rightly making us less tolerant of crimes such as domestic abuse, rape and child abuse as well as discrimination. Public expectations on policing are therefore greater.”

However, the problem is much more fundamental than a mismatch between the demographics of the Met and London. More women, black or LGBT+ police officers that reflect London’s population isn’t going to root out systematic oppression in the force. The question is who or what is driving the racism, misogyny and homophobia so that it becomes institutional regardless of who the police officers are.

A mainstream argument is that the police reflect society. That they are “workers in uniform” or, as chief superintendent Mark Rowley, puts it, the police are “citizens in uniform using their power with public consent”. This is a variation on the “Peel Principle”. One of the much vaunted principles behind the founding of the Met by then home secretary Sir Robert Peel in 1829, it claimed, “The police are the public and the public are the police.” 

But this principle disguises the reality that the police force is one part of the armoury of the capitalist state that developed in the 19th century. Far from being an age-old or neutral apparatus, the state developed with the rise of class society and is an instrument of class rule.

The Met was created to deal with the growth of the working class and to protect the property of those at the top of society. Governments had relied on the army to keep order, but they couldn’t maintain soldiers in every urban centre and military crackdowns could increase disorder. The principle of “policing by consent” was designed to build acceptance of this new force to control the streets. Its general aim, historian Stephen Inwood says, was to “establish minimum standards of public order but not to provoke social conflict”. 

The police’s role in capitalist society means it responds to the needs of the ruling class even though there have been problems with behaviour in the Met since its founding. Some 3,000 officers from the 8,000 enrolled between 1829 and 1831 were discharged for lack of fitness, incompetence or drunkenness. And it means the cops reflect and reinforce ruling class ideology, for instance, the way the system uses oppression to divide ordinary people. 

Its first two commissioners were Sir Richard Mayne, a barrister born in Dublin and the son of a judge, and Colonel Charles Rowan. As sole commissioner from 1855, Richard Mayne directed the Metropolitan Police to enforce ruling class “bourgeois” morality and regulate working class people’s lives.  This, for example, included the bourgeois belief that sex workers were “bad” women who had to be driven off the streets to keep them safe for “good” women. The principle of enforcing ruling class values holds true today. As a former chief constable put it, “But in order to get some of the top jobs you have to be on message… you have to be speaking, and to a degree thinking, the same kind of thoughts as the politicians who are likely to appoint you.”

But it’s not just about thinking and speaking—it’s about acting out that message. Casey revealed figures from a Met data signalling tool for use by officers themselves. They showed that 147 of 227—52 percent—reported instances of sexism or misogyny where the rank was known were “by a person of senior rank or other position of authority and trust”. It suggests senior officers are disproportionately responsible for misogyny against fellow Met officers. They play a key role in ensuring that complaints do not lead to dismissal. Their strategies vary from an accused officer being asked to “reflect” on their behaviour to transferring the complainant, making the life of the complainant a misery and sometimes bringing a complaint against that person. 

Similarly, racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes, remarks and initiation rituals can only continue if “allowed” by senior officers. This includes, in some cases, more senior women officers taking the attitude that if they had to go through such rituals, then so should younger women. 

This is particularly marked in the MO19 specialist firearms command where a male officer may be moved temporarily only to be reinstated by more senior officers. Casey revealed a practice of using the codeword “LANDSLIDE” in a WhatsApp group, if it had become “compromised” in some way such as being subject to an investigation. This would get officers to leave the group, wipe the messages, and migrate to a new WhatsApp group. 

The firearms trainers play a crucial role in maintaining the culture because they decide who has the right to carry a gun. And, according to Casey, “They are the gatekeepers of MO19. Too often, they use this power and influence to select officers in their own image rather than on merit, and to keep out women, ethnic minorities, and other people whose faces don’t fit their ideal of a firearms officer”. Senior officers who challenge such behaviours are pushed out. “We were told that senior leaders are either unaware of what is happening in this part of the command or are actively part of an inner circle which allows poor behaviour to go unchallenged,” it adds. 

This is the sort of racist, misogynist and homophobic behaviour that the Met encourages or tolerates against its own officers. So it is hardly surprising that cops mete out the same behaviour to ordinary people. And that institutional racism, sexism and homophobia hampers cops’ ability to respond to behaviours they indulge in themselves or tolerate in fellow officers.

Homophobia hampered the investigations into Stephen Port who murdered four young gay men. Vulnerable women who report rape or domestic violence are not believed or thought to deserve what they get. And young black men are just potential targets for “Stop and search”, violent arrest and worse. Nor is it surprising that like will attract like into the Met. As Casey says, “There is a profound culture across the Met that incentivises people to look, act and sound the same, and a resistance to difference.”

Don’t expect much change in racist, misogynist and homophobic practices—it’s not going to happen.

London’s top cop Sir Mark Rowley doesn’t accept the descriptor “institutionally” racist, misogynist and homophobic. He thinks the term is ambiguous and too “political”. His continued refusal to do so is no doubt rooted in the politics of the British government. It rejected the term and had hoped to bury it with the Tony Sewell report in March 2021, which concluded there was no institutional racism in Britain. Casey’s report has, in fact, buried Sewell.

The Tories don’t want to root out racism, misogyny and homophobia, they want to equip the police to crack down on protest. It’s part of an “authoritarian hardening” in liberal capitalist states as they face multiple crises and the potential for resistance. The police are a repressive instrument of the capitalist state. The current French police crackdown on protestors is a timely reminder about the forces of law and order. Even in “liberal democracies”, they will beat up and bang up protesters if our rulers decide that’s what is required to maintain their rule. 

The Police Bill, which seeks to thwart protest, contained the “police covenant” that means cops put their own safety first. The National Security Bill is about increasing powers of the police to stop and search and to crack down on protest.

Tory home secretary Suella Braverman’s response to the Casey Review in the House of Commons is extraordinary but revealing. She started her eight-minute-long statement saying, “I back the police. I trust them to put their safety before ours, to step into danger, to protect the most vulnerable, to support all of us at our most fearful, painful and tragic moments.” “Many of us cannot imagine the challenges regular police officers face every day,” she continued. “Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of the murder of the police officer Keith Palmer whilst he was protecting us in the line of duty in this place.”

“Join me in thanking the police for their work,” concluded Braverman. Palmer was part of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection police (PADP) from 2016, the one unit Casey says should be immediately disbanded as the “darkest corner in the Met.” 

There was not a word about Sarah Everard and her murderer Wayne Couzens from the PADP. She was silent about the women who were raped and sexually assaulted by David Carrick—also from the PADP. And that’s not to mention the cases of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, Child Q, Chris Kaba and all the other victims of the police and their families and friends. 

“I want Londoners to judge Sir Mark and the Mayor of London, not on their words, but on their actions to stamp out the racist, misogynistic and homophobic behaviour,” she concludes. The word “institutionally” doesn’t pass her lips. 

Instead, Braverman makes clear that Rowley has to have a long-term plan to deal with the deep-seated “cultural” problems. That this may take years and that central government will make sure he gets all the support he needs. She wants the Met to concentrate on what she calls “common sense policing”, deal with drug misuse and county lines.

“Common sense policing” means visiting the scene of every burglary and being on the side of the “law abiding majority”. The people she really sees as criminals are “the mob”, people who glue themselves to roads and topple statues of slave owners such as Colston. She pledges that all this is going to stop and protesters are going to be put behind bars. And she targets the left who are attacking “our profound, elemental values, wanting to replace them with the poison of identity politics”. The police need to stick to catching the “the bad guys”. 

Braverman claims the police fail to deal with child sexual abuse because of “political correctness” rather than sexism, claiming, “The perpetrators are groups of men, almost all British Pakistani.” So, she claims, what is needed is “more PCs and less PC”. 

In the face of this, we have to be part of campaigns to get cops out of schools and scrap Prevent, against stop and search and the Tories’ authoritarian laws. We have to win widespread support against police repression within the working class movement. Today the target is climate protesters. But we should remember the way the police were used to crack down on workers’ struggles in the past when they challenged the untrammelled rule of the wealthy and big business. 

But more than that, we have to work for a socialist transformation of society that uproots exploitation and oppression. In past and recent revolutions, we’ve seen that working class people can create their own democratic bodies in the course of their struggles and confront the state. They have the potential to become alternative organs of political rule, take power and run society from the bottom up without capitalists, their state and its oppressive institutions. 

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