Astonishing Devotion

Matt Foot

The home secretary, Priti Patel, spoke this week at the annual conference of the Police Federation of England and Wales in Manchester. ‘Nobody does a harder job or a better one than the police,’ she said. ‘And no one does more, in my view, to make our country great. And nobody gives greater public service.’ The opening section of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which received royal assent last month, enshrines a new ‘police covenant’. Introducing the idea in February 2020, Patel said:

Too many officers are paying the price for their astonishing devotion to public duty … This covenant is a pledge to do more to recognise the service and sacrifice of our police and to deliver the urgent practical support they need.

Under the new act, the home secretary is obliged to provide an annual report to Parliament setting out the ‘health and well-being’ of the police. It must say whether they ‘are at a disadvantage compared to other persons’. (According to a recent survey, there are ten jobs in the UK more dangerous than being a police officer, including nursing, driving a taxi and farming.) What events might a covenant report for the past year have considered?

In March 2021, a member of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command of the Metropolitan Police kidnapped Sarah Everard by showing his warrant card and handcuffing her. He strangled, raped and murdered her, crimes for which he was sentenced to life in prison. At a peaceful vigil to remember Everard, police manhandled women to the ground and placed them in handcuffs.

On 30 April 2021, a former probationary police officer was sentenced to four years and four months in prison for having been a member of a proscribed terrorist organisation, the neo-Nazi National Action.

On 6 December 2021, two police officers were each jailed for two years and nine months for taking photographs of two murdered Black women at a crime scene they were supposed to be protecting, and sharing the pictures on two WhatsApp groups (one containing 41 officers).

Barely a week goes by without news of another police officer facing serious charges or further malpractice. There is also evidence of increasing prejudice in the force. The disparity between the stop and search rate for Black people and white people is higher than it was at the time of the Macpherson report, which in 1999 found the Met to be ‘institutionally racist’.

The police have consistently failed women who accuse officers of domestic violence. In 2019, Alexandra Heale’s reporting for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (which won the Paul Foot Award in 2020) uncovered seven hundred complaints against officers for domestic abuse in the previous three years. The allegations were taken less seriously than in cases where the person accused wasn’t a police officer. The Centre for Women’s Justice made a super-complaint in March 2020.

On 15 June 2021, the Independent Panel Report into the murder of Daniel Morgan in 1987 was published. The Panel found the Met ‘institutionally corrupt’ because it had failed to investigate the case properly and continued to cover up repeated mistakes, just as his brother Alastair Morgan had been saying for 34 years.

On 1 February 2022 an investigation focused on constables at Charing Cross Police Station revealed homophobic, misogynist and racist comments in WhatsApp and Facebook chats. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, sought the resignation of the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, having ‘made clear’ to her ‘the scale of the change … urgently required to rebuild the trust and confidence of Londoners in the Met and to root out the racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, discrimination and misogyny that still exists’.

Given all this, the home secretary’s concern that the police are ‘disadvantaged’ seems misplaced. Handing them yet more discretionary powers will only invite further prejudice against oppressed and marginalised groups in society.

The notion that the police need even more powers over protesters, as they have been given by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, is nonsense. In Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest, Morag Livingstone and I show that the police have consistently used excessive force against protesters over the last forty years and have very rarely been held to account.

Under Margaret Thatcher’s government, without Parliament’s knowledge, the police and Home Office created a secret public order manual. The first victims of the new paramilitary tactics were printers at Warrington, picketing to save their jobs in 1983. They were followed by the miners at Orgreave in 1984, when the BBC reversed the footage to suggest the miners and not the police had started the violence that led to police horse charges. There’s a direct line from the way the police treated the women at Greenham Common to the violent action at the vigil for Sarah Everard. We need a covenant to protect protesters.


  • 21 May 2022 at 10:21am
    OldScrounger says:
    "Orgreave in 1984, when the BBC reversed the footage to suggest the miners and not the police had started the violence that led to police horse charges."

    This may be common knowledge, but it has taken till now for me to be aware of the allegation. What consequences, if any, have there been? Have names -- within the BBC and within whichever agencies were involved -- been named?

    • 22 May 2022 at 1:56pm
      XopherO says: @ OldScrounger
      In 2019 the home secretary refused an inquiry. Labour had 13 years to order one, but didn't. Timid Starmer would not touch it with a barge pole. BBC says it was just a 'mistake'.

    • 27 May 2022 at 12:32pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ XopherO
      Who will write an honest history of these and other matters?

    • 28 May 2022 at 9:59am
      XopherO says: @ Lexa Hypatia
      What is an honest history? One that connects with your prejudices? I don't think there is an historian/historiographer who will or can tell you what an 'honest history' is. The question is a bit naive. You might find something of an answer in E H Carr 'What is history?'

    • 30 May 2022 at 1:59pm
      Rory Allen says: @ XopherO
      Naivete: the accusation levelled down the ages, by the cynical against the truthful in defence of the criminal.

    • 30 May 2022 at 5:02pm
      Reader says: @ XopherO
      Personally I prefer G R Elton: "The practice of history", the other text that young historians were encouraged to read before their degree courses, back in the day.

      I would refer you in particular to page 75, referring to Carr's view on historical fact, which is essentially what I think you are referring to: "This is really an extraordinary way of looking at history; worse, it is an extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian in studying it." He goes on: "that men cannot ever eliminate themselves from the search for truth is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that, because it once again favours the purely relativist concept of history, the opinion that it is all simply in the historian's mind and becomes whatever he likes to make of it."

      But then I guess you would dismiss Elton as 'a bit naive'. I would have liked to have seen you tell him that to his face.

    • 30 May 2022 at 5:03pm
      Reader says: @ XopherO
      Sorry - to many 'refers' there. And in the LRB blog too! Shame on me.

  • 23 May 2022 at 12:58pm
    Lexa Hypatia says:
    I have been listening to the serialisation of the latest book by 'the secret barrister' on radio 4. If that is to be believed, cuts in spending on the whole justice system (not just the police, the courts as well) has damaged the whole process, of which the police are just one component. If the Conservatives really want to 'get tough on crime' or whatever the latest slogan is, they need to restore the funding cuts to enable offences to be dealt with by the trial and sentencing system. And for that matter to fund the prisons so that staff there are not constantly overworked. And to devote money to rehabilitation.

    We all know, sadly, that this will not happen while we have an administration whose main aim is to cut spending so as to make the world safer for millionaires.

  • 24 May 2022 at 2:35am
    nlowhim says:
    Yeah here in the states a similar pattern of corruption crops up, though I sense our situation is worse. The civilian oversight for the police has been abysmal and the police in many cities have essentially laughed off any attempt to have civilian control over them. Dangerous stuff if you ask me.

    • 27 May 2022 at 12:16pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ nlowhim
      I thought police chiefs were subject to popular election in the US?

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