Content warning: This article covers difficult topics, including sexual assault.
I feel compelled to write because nothing will change, regardless of any inquiry, unless the Metropolitan Police either decides or is forced to take a painfully honest look at where its culture came from, and why it has been allowed to thrive. If the attitude persists that “the vast majority of officers are good, it’s just a few rotten apples”, then the police will continue to be institutionally, morally corrupt.
Why this story?
Since the Tortoise Policing Inquiry last month, I have been approached by many members – men and women, former officers and members of public – wanting to share their experiences of working in or closely with the police. Not all those experiences are bad, but many – particularly those involving the policing of domestic abuse – feature consistent features that suggest systemic failings. This letter, sent in by a former officer who wishes to remain anonymous, is characteristic of these conversations. It describes, in raw and unsettling detail, one female officer’s thirty year career inside the Met, the largest police service in the country.
If you would like to contribute to our investigation, on or off the record, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am especially keen to hear from people with first-hand experience of police vetting and disciplinary procedures and police welfare services. Liz Moseley, Editor
Policing is a unique job. Day after day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, working shifts and unpredictable hours, police deal with difficult and distressing situations. It takes a huge amount of emotional and physical energy. You never know what the day is going to throw at you.
The fact that most people will never be happy with what the police can do for them, regardless of how professionally or compassionately they do it, is just the nature of policing. So it is completely normal to want to be accepted and supported by your colleagues, especially in a job where you rely on them for your personal safety.
The exceptional nature of the job does not excuse the current culture. The majority of officers don’t choose to become part of it, but there is an insidious, unseen poison that slowly corrupts and very few officers are able to resist. Senior police leadership has failed to recognise that the natural desire for camaraderie and the necessary bonds of trust between officers who depend on each other, often for their lives, has turned toxic. I think it is important to know why the current culture has arisen. To discover this, officers will need to feel they can give honest accounts without consequences. A complete review, conducted by people who have a detailed knowledge and understanding of policing but who can read between the lines is required. The police, led by the Federation who serve no one but themselves, will have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of their complacency.
I am a recently retired Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) officer. Of the handful of women who joined in my early 1980s intake, I was the only one to serve more than five years. My ex-husband was also an officer. When I reported him for domestic abuse, not only was he protected by colleagues, but I received threats from high-ranking officers.
In the first two years of my 30 plus years as a police officer, I was on the receiving end of comments about my looks and body, sexual innuendo and blatantly sexual remarks every day. Graffiti was written about me in male police station toilets. I was sexually assaulted by three different male officers and sexually assaulted by a man I was arresting. I had to endure social events with strippers, drunken male officers exposing themselves, and it was not unusual for male officers to engage in sexual acts in public with sex workers hired for the event. I was always careful to be on my guard. I did not want them to think that I was sexually available.
Despite all that, I loved my job. I was young, resilient and had loads of energy. Back then, I was one of three women on a large team. I worked hard, and over time gained the respect of most of my male colleagues. Sexism was the norm in society in the early 80s and in a lot of ways the police treated male and female officers the same way. There were parts of the force where it was thought that female officers couldn’t work but occasionally, if the right male senior officer supported it, then women would be allowed to do the job. I was in no doubt that my colleagues would look after me and back me up when I was on duty and dealing with members of the public. At that time, they looked after the uniform. In my experience, this is not the case today.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the sexism became less overt as more women joined but it did not go away. Female officers started behaving like the men, out-drinking them, out-swearing them, and immersing themselves in the canteen culture. Morale was ground down by constant policy changes. During my service, we went full circle in a lot of things, as senior officers introduced “new ideas” to justify their promotion at the expense of the lower ranks.
The last five years of my service were especially difficult, just trying to get other officers to do their job. It had become culturally acceptable to “do as little as possible”. Many hours of police time are wasted arguing about whose responsibility something is. “Not in our remit” culture pervades. A significant minority of officers turn up late and go home early. They refuse to do overtime, literally just walking out to leave the few conscientious officers (or overtime grabbers) to get things done. It is a force joke that there are officers who only start working when they are on overtime. Favoured officers are given time off without having to officially book it. It was accepted practice for officers to “forget” to come in at weekends, and then retrospectively “book on” on Monday morning, when they had not turned up for work at all. Sometimes, a supervisor would even do it for them.
The impact of this on victims is significant. Police begin inquiries with the default mindset that they will fail, that witnesses won’t be contactable, that there won’t be a reply to a knock on a door, and so on. Because of this mindset, the officers just don’t try. I have lost count of the times when I have had a result from the first attempt after other officers have recorded “searched no trace”. When officers consider tasks to be routine, dull or administrative, they just avoid doing them altogether. It’s a culture that makes officers very defensive. When a victim calls in to say they can’t get hold of their investigating officer, the officer will label the victim “difficult”. There is no doubt that the police deal with some very difficult people, but many of them are difficult because they are receiving a poor service.
By the time I retired, there was no leadership, very little meaningful supervision and no consequences to wrong-doing. I witnessed and reported serious neglects of duty, in writing, and these reports were ignored by senior officers. I even made a statement about a police officer using excessive force and no one even spoke to me about it. I challenged officers who expressed concerning views, and had no back up from colleagues or supervisors. I overheard officers making disgusting comments about victims of child sexual abuse and rape, and when I saw officers examining extremely sensitive content in full view of other officers I was told told off by senior officers for challenging it. How did the police get to this?
Part of the answer is that the police promotion process favours the arrogant, over-confident, self-promoting individuals, which means the force ends up with senior people who are not good leaders. These senior officers recognise and reward people like them, the “characters” and the “heroes”, while the quiet and industrious officers, doing the gruelling and unglamorous daily work, are ignored. Supervising officers seem incapable of or unwilling to realise that, for very obvious reasons, police officers do not behave badly in front of them – but that does not mean that officers do not behave badly.
Since I retired, I have started having counselling to try to come to terms with the environment in which I worked for all that time. I can’t explain how angry I am (though not surprised) at the reports of behaviour of the MPS and other forces in relation to the Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman and Sarah Everard murder investigations. I know I do not know the full facts, but I believe Mina Smallman’s reports of the way she has been treated.
I have been living in dread, because it was inevitable that the culture at the MPS would be exposed. I am ashamed to tell people I was an MPS officer and this deeply saddens me. I also feel so guilty that I didn’t do more, that I wasn’t strong enough to stand up against the moral corruption, the bullies and the “characters”.
A concern I have is that any inquiry will miss the point. Paying lip service and adopting slogans has been done so many times in the past. If a person needs to see a slogan on a poster in the canteen to remind them to behave with decency, they should not be a police officer. And this is not only a gender issue. I have witnessed inappropriate sexual behaviour from female and male officers, straight and gay officers, white, black and brown officers. I am strongly of the belief that ALL officers should behave with dignity and treat other officers and the public with respect regardless of gender, background, race or class.
There is no excuse, there is only explanation and understanding. Then there must be change. I only hope that the MPS will be ready to understand how this has happened, and then employ leaders who can really lead, be prepared to be unpopular, stand up to the bullies and rebuild the faith that the public should have in their police. Police officers should always remember that they too are the public.
I would also like to just say that despite everything I loved my job. It was the only job I wanted to do and I refused to be bullied out of it. I have a lot of good memories and have worked with a small minority of outstanding officers who really cared and I was proud and privileged to work with. If a police officer reads this, it’s possible they will feel defensive and deny that any of this happens. I’m sure what I have said would anger them. But that is the whole point. It’s painful to come to terms with the fact that we are all responsible for the current culture and that includes me.
This account was written by a former Metropolitan Police Officer. Her name is being withheld at her own request.
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