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Police Corruption – a very British problem?

Written by Robert Barrington on Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Cyril Smith allegations cast doubt once again on police probity.


TI’s Global Corruption Barometer an opinion survey of citizens’ daily experience of bribery, consistently shows that may ordinary people suffer at the hands of the police.  The very institution that should be protecting them is often the most rapacious – extorting bribes to avoid summary arrest for non-existent offences, refusing to investigate crimes without a payment or – perhaps worse – accepting pay-offs to drop investigations into serious crimes such as rape and violence. Our colleague from TI Rwanda, Gustave Makonene, was murdered a year ago by two police officers to prevent him investigating their own corruption.

By comparison policing in the UK has always seemed relatively benign.  The daily experience of citizens is not that they will ask for bribes, and, interspersed with cynicism, there is a general expectation that the police should act in the interests of justice – without fear or favour.

The Cyril Smith allegations cast doubt once again on police probity, and comes after several years of allegations over corruption in the Stephen Lawrence case, News International, the Hillsborough disaster, and other cases.  What the Cyril Smith case reveals is a softer and more insidious form of corruption than straightforward bribery, which may ultimately be as damaging to the fabric of our society.  The case suggests that the rich, powerful and well-connected are able to commit hideous crimes and get away with it, even when the police have investigated and have evidence.

To some, this will come as no surprise.  Although the UK performs well on most standard corruption measures, there is a lingering feeling that beneath the surface there is an underlying corruption of cronyism and impunity that somehow feels uniquely British.  Invisible, deniable, difficult to legislate against, sometimes doing little apparent harm except inexorably tilting the system in favour of its beneficiaries, sometimes doing great harm.  Of course, many of the current allegations relate to events of years ago, but there is little to suggest the same could not happen today.

Two questions now arise: how corrupt are the British police, and what can be done about it?  We need good answers to both of these. 

Meanwhile, here are four principles which should underpin any approach:

  • Admit there is a problem.  Time and again, I hear senior police officers and politicians writing off each new allegation as a one-off.  They may be right.  But from the outside, it looks a lot more serious than that.
  • Support whistleblowing.  Honest officers inside the police force will know best what is going on.  They need to be rewarded for coming forward, not victimised and the available systems to facilitate such reports need to dependable. HMIC’s 2014/2015 inspection on police integrity and corruption found that confidence in official whistleblowing mechanisms is a significant issue –  only 57 per cent of police trusted the confidentiality of these systems.
  • Punish the guilty.  Both in the interests of justice and as a deterrence corrupt police officers need to be held to account.  They cannot be allowed simply to leave or retire early.
  • Ensure there are robust and consistent anti-corruption systems.  TI’s report of a few years ago did not paint a very pretty picture; many more allegations have surfaced since then, exposing more weaknesses in systems and culture.

As in any institution, it is probable that the vast majority of the workforce is honest, and those who might waiver in the wrong culture can avoid temptation in the right culture.  There will be genuinely rotten apples, sometimes at senior level, and they should be identified and evicted, not have their positions reinforced because the institution is too fearful to take them on.

We need a police force that acts in the public interest, without fear or favour.  It looks like it’s time to admit there may be a problem and think about how to sort it out.


Read 5855 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 12:18

Robert Barrington

Robert is TI-UK's Executive Director. You can view his full bio here, and tweet him @TIukED.

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