TOAs a young journalist, I remember one night I looked across the news desk at a row of brown envelopes waiting for a messenger. Each was targeted at a central London police station. Apparently it was for the “police charity fund” and it was for “notices”. But clues to what? I was shocked.
It doesn’t surprise me anymore. The climax of this week’s police corruption television bonanza was not “Who was H?” in line of duty. It was the BBC2 three-part documentary called Bent coppers. It was more exciting because it wasn’t fiction, it was a documentary. But the message was the same as Line of Duty: no one in charge of the police really cared about corruption.
Bent Coppers told the story of the London City and Metropolitan Police in the 1960s and 1970s. The robbers’ money was taken almost from the bottom up. The source of the payments was initially vice, pornography and bank robberies. Then, after the Drug Abuse Act of 1971, the growth of the illicit drug market led to the explosion of corruption.
The police were the headquarters of “a company within a company”. The police were secretly recorded bragging to the criminals: “We have more villains than you … The biggest gangsters in Soho are the police … Everyone deserves ‘a drink’.” The firm had “people” in every district. Money was given to junior police officers in elevators to keep them quiet. The city’s police seemed the worst, with regular bank robberies and even murder, never leading to arrest or imprisonment. Political oversight was zero.
When Robert Mark was hired to clean the Met in 1972, he decided he should finish the “routinely corrupt”CID. Yet the BBC forcibly praised every night at Dixon of Dock Green and Z-Cars. When a shocked public challenged Mark, he simply said, “It will stop bank robberies.” To a large extent it did. He later described the Met as “long involved in more routine crime than the other police forces in England and Wales combined”. [Mark’s memoirs]. The attacks against him, including those of pro-IADC journalists, were so fierce that he needed the public backing of internal secretaries Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins.
Anyone familiar with law enforcement knows that bad laws make policing corrupt. The vice laws simply meant massive payments to the police. Drug laws meant that to increase arrests, the police simply planted drugs, especially on black people. They spawned an increasingly deadly mob. I remember two obvious dealers at a drug liaison meeting in Stepney Green, East London, yelling at me: “We love our police. Stay out of our place. ”This was long after the reformers claimed to have fired or“ retired ”500 corrupt London police officers.
Now we have the continual revelations of the “spy cops” saga. 139 renowned policemen were assigned to infiltrate hundreds of political groups through the Special Demonstration Brigade. His “covert” methods were so outrageous that a high-level source admitted that he had lost his “moral compass.” However, it reflected a sense of a police culture that operated beyond the limits of public responsibility.
The London police were (and, as I understand, largely still are) like an ancient Italian city-state, awash in private armies, each loyal to itself. There’s the VIP Protection Squad, the Firearms Squad, the Fraud Squad, the Drug Squad, the Paramilitary Territorial Support Group, and a bunch of mysterious black ops. Last week, I saw two police officers idly strolling through Mayfair’s Shepherd Market proudly sporting submachine guns. Could this be London?
The result is inevitable. Crime dramas used to end with the forces of law and order winning like the good guys. No longer. In Line of Duty, even the good guys have to be a bit corrupt. At Bent Coppers, all the bosses survived or went to live in Spain. Those who tried to hold them accountable had their careers ruined. The documentary was a terrible advertisement for whistle-blowing.
We are told that surveillance in a democracy is a unique calling. Since the days of Robert Peel, the right to deprive fellow citizens of their liberty is based not only on the law, but on a clear moral code. That, in turn, demands fierce loyalty from its members. But what was amazing about both Bent Coppers and Line of Duty was the complete absence of political responsibility. No one was in charge. No politician made an appearance.
The police seemed enough to themselves, making money from crime. The third-in-command of the City of London Police in the 1980s, Hugh Moore, was described on air as “the greatest villain without hanging up.” He was never brought to justice. Worse still, his totally corrupted force, which should have immediately disbanded and merged with the Met, remained in operation, and still does.
I’m sure they’ll tell us that everything is different now. But the message of these programs is serious. They run the risk of collapsing the public’s trust in the police. That can only be restored when the various forces are under transparent democratic control. They should never be companies within companies or armies within armies. They need permanent oversight commissions under elected leadership. At present, his only responsibility is in front of the television screen.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism