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Sensemaker: British police culture

Sensemaker: British police culture

What just happened

Long stories short

  • An SUV ploughed into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, killing five people and injuring dozens.
  • Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, was seen holding a video call with the president of the International Olympic Committee, but the WTA repeated its demand for a full investigation of her rape allegation against a former Chinese vice premier. 
  • Hatice Cengiz, widow of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, called on Justin Bieber to withdraw from a concert scheduled for 5 December in Jeddah.

British police culture

If the rape and murder of Sarah Everard in London in March revealed the evils of one man, it also betrayed the catastrophic failures of a police service swimming in misogyny, reluctant to change, and combative in the face of reasonable criticism. It’s a culture that to various degrees exists across the UK. At Tortoise, we’ve committed to reporting on the complex ways in which modern policing is failing – and we started with the best way we know how: by asking our members to make the news with us. 

We were blindsided by the response from hundreds of current and former officers, experts and observers who came forward to help guide us to the right questions – online and in phone interviews, and during a whole day of ThinkIns last Friday.

We learned: 

  • Problems start early: Rick Muir, director of the Police Federation, said “recruitment has never been a problem for the police”. Yet it remains unrepresentative of the public it serves – just a third of officers are women, and 7 per cent are from black or minority ethnic groups. This is a problem, but so too is inexperience. Around 40 per cent of officers today have fewer than 3 years in service, and Helen King, a former Assistant Commissioner at the Met, told us stereotypes about the job (now aided by a boom in true crime content) mean bullies and predators are attracted to sign up.
  • Vetting is a “blunt instrument”: 35,000 police staff have not been vetted adequately – many not since the day they joined the force, some after decades of service. Wayne Couzens was one of them. King said the process is basic, mostly screening for convictions, and vetting departments vary wildly in robustness across the country.
  • Sexism is endemic, and there is a pervasive blame culture: Rhona Malone, a former firearms officer, challenged Police Scotland on the sexism and victimisation she’d encountered at work. Instead of being supported, she said she was sidelined and isolated. Her story is far from unusual. Another former officer said she had been told repeatedly to “just go and have babies” and “spend time being a mum”. We heard that when sexism is pointed out, forces mostly close ranks and protect “charming men”. 
  • Real change needs political will: Leroy Logan, a former superintendent and founder of the Black Police Association, described the significant changes he witnessed following the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the publication of the MacPherson report in 1999. Not, he said, because of a Damascene conversion among police, but thanks to the political will to force through change. This will has now dissipated, he said. For example, after the Victoria Climbie inquiry published its report in 2003, none of its recommendations were “bedded in”, and meaningful independent oversight was abandoned. 
  • There is a failure of moral leadership: we heard a damning observation by former probation officer and member of the Daniel Morgan inquiry, Sam Pollock, who said police have had plenty of opportunity to learn and change. “Integrity is how we deal with mistakes and learn from them,” he said. “If you cover up again and again, that’s not leadership.” Cressida Dick, the head of the Met, has faced repeated calls to resign in the aftermath of Everard’s death. She defended the poor advice issued to women after Couzens was convicted, including that they should “wave down a bus” if in danger. She said: “The vast majority of my police officers are good people” and added that they are “doing their best”. Yet it’s clear more must be asked of police leaders. Logan and others agreed they cannot be allowed to treat policing as a brand to be protected – us vs. them – thereby coarsening the relationship with the public.
  • Access is compromised: there is a glut of TV being made about policing, but is access the same as transparency? The answer is clearly no. A rise in interest in true crime and criminal justice doesn’t equate to accountability. And as Lady Brittan, widow of Leon Brittan, told us, viewers and consumers need to be more sceptical when the media is focused on a particular policing narrative.  

So what should we as journalists do? We wrote ourselves a list: 

  • The Police Federation: investigate who it protects, and why. Are they the guardians of a bad culture? 
  • Senior leadership: beyond Cressida Dick, hold others to account.
  • Vetting: investigate where and how screening processes are failing. 
  • Disciplinaries: only the most serious misconduct hearings are heard in public; the rest of the system is opaque. We will follow disciplinary hearings and press for better data on internal misconduct hearings. We need to find out how NDAs are used in the settling of internal matters. 
  • Sexual assault complaints: In 2019/20, none of the 73 allegations for sexual assault by officers referred to the IOPC was upheld. Why? 
  • The police, online: police staff told us to look at how current and former officers conduct themselves online, as a barometer for understanding police culture and attitudes to scrutiny. 

Sign of progress? The Times reports today that violence against women and girls is to become a “strategic policing requirement” alongside terrorism and child sex abuse, meaning in principle more money will be assigned to combating it. 

You can watch all the ThinkIns from Friday’s Policing Inquiry online, and in our app. If you have an experience to share that would further our investigation into, or deepen our understanding of, any of the six reporting priorities we’ve identified so far, please write to liz@tortoisemedia.com for an initial conversation, on or off the record.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

After Rittenhouse
Closing arguments are heard today in a companion case to that of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenage vigilante acquitted of murder on Friday after killing two men in what he claimed was self-defence. Rittenhouse was in a running battle in Kenosha, Wisconsin, between Black Lives Matter activists and fellow vigilantes who arrived in Kenosha with high-powered rifles and said they were defending property. Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead last summer in Satilla Shores, Georgia, after being pursued by three white men who suspected him of burglary. He was unarmed, 25 and Black. The race card has not been explicitly deployed by either side in the trial of Arbery’s killers, but if they, like Rittenhouse, are acquitted, it will be hard to avoid the impression that mainly-white American juries have swung decisively behind the right of white men with guns to dispense a rough sort of justice all their own.

New things technology, science, engineering

Chinese hypersonics
The Pentagon is worried (£) that China may be racing ahead of the US towards a new technological frontier where it can deploy nuclear weapons anywhere on the globe using hypersonic glide vehicles that can defy American missile defences. That would be China’s Sputnik moment, people familiar with this stuff say – because the US cannot do this yet. Hypersonic glide vehicles close on their targets at about five times the speed of sound after being released from an orbital mothership. In this sense they are a bit like mini space shuttles, but a Chinese vehicle tested in June appears to be more manoeuvrable and much less benign. Xi’s game is not to destroy the world but to be feared throughout it.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

African vaccines
Six times more Covid booster shots are delivered worldwide every day than first jabs in low-income countries. The lucky rich, in other words, are getting close to 100 per cent protection before the billion poorest get any at all. The WHO and the One Campaign have joined forces to highlight what they (and we at Tortoise) are calling a scandal and to implore Germany in particular to reverse a recent decision to withhold doses intended for distribution to poor countries via Covax for at least a month. Germany has committed €1.6 billion to Covax and promised 100 million free doses for poorer countries but its health minister is delaying those initially scheduled for shipping next month until January or February. He points to soaring European infection rates as those reported in sub-Saharan Africa appear to be falling. But the WHO reckons only 15 per cent of African cases are detected, meaning real case numbers are seven times higher than reported.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Deep sea mining
A deep sea mining entrepreneur who plans to scrape the ocean floor for nodules of copper and nickel for batteries has been caught $200 million short after investors failed to come up with money they had promised. So he’s suing them. The FT reports (£) that Gerrard Barron of The Metals Company has filed suits against two private equity groups that appear to have got cold feet since his company went public in September. This is not altogether surprising. There’s a de facto moratorium on deep sea mining, for which rules have yet to be finalised by the International Seabed Authority, and the whole idea attracts mountains of negative publicity because of an assumption it would cause large-scale and irreversible environmental damage. It would. There’s not much life down there on the abyssal plain in terms of biomass, but there is extraordinary biodiversity. Against that: i) the Pacific is huge; ii) mining could be restricted to promising areas like the Clarion Clipperton zone off Baja California; and iii) if the seabed is not going to be mined for the metals needed for batteries for EVs, a lot more of them will have to be found on land.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Mr Subway
In 1965 Peter Buck lent 17 year-old Fred DeLuca $1,000 to start a sandwich shop in Connecticut. Buck was a nuclear physicist. DeLuca was the son of a friend. The shop didn’t report a profit for 15 years, but DeLuca stuck with it and Buck supported his strategy of aggressive expansion on the franchise model. The result was the Subway chain, which left Buck with a net worth of $1.7 billion on his death last Thursday. Subway has nearly 40,000 branches worldwide, compared with 34,000 for McDonalds. 

The week ahead


22/11–CBI annual conference begins; speakers include Keir Starmer, Chris Whitty and Boris Johnson; Oil and Gas UK annual forecast on UK’s decommissioning activity and expenditure; Funeral and procession in Southend for David Amess MP, 23/11–Service for Amess at Westminster Cathedral, with message from the Pope; culture secretary Nadine Dorries gives evidence to DCMS committee, 24/11–Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo gives evidence on Brexit negotiations over the peninsula; domestic abuse statistics for England and Wales released, 25/11– Home Office immigration statistics and NHS vacancy statistics for England; Jordan Peterson addresses Oxford Union, 26/11–Bristol Rovers manager Joey Barton appears charged with assault; David Frost and Maros Sefcovic discuss Northern Ireland protocol, 27/11– London’s night tube returns for some lines


22/11–Brazilian ministers’ briefing on outcome of Cop26; nationwide lockdown in Austria begins after weekend of protests, 23/11–target launch for Nasa’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, which could help prevent an asteroid hitting earth, 24/11–FIDE World Championship of Chess begins in Dubai; general council of World Trade Organization meets in Geneva, 25/11– Thanksgiving in US; international day for elimination of violence against women, 26/11–Black Friday sales, 27/11–Hanukkah begins

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Basia Cummings

Giles Whittell

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images