Vir Cantium

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The Police and Politics

The storm over the Damien Green arrest hasn’t gone away. Like being in the eye of any storm, it’s relatively quiet right now, but the winds will pick up again tomorrow when MPs debate the issue.

With the furore over the Speaker’s role, and Martin trying to shift blame onto the Serjeant-at-Arms (one of his staff, in effect), we mustn’t forget the wider implications for the Police.

Let’s face it, there has been a degree of ineptitude on the part of the police – though not to the extent of the Stephen Lawrence or de Menezes cases, but as with them, I suspect it has been mainly a case of cock-up rather than conspiracy (though I’m not commenting on the motivations of those in government who have allegedly led the police into this mire).

But when defending themselves, the police cannot just step back from the situation saying “we don’t do politics”. When officers arrest an MP and/or search his home and office, they are getting involved in a political situation, whether they like it or not. It is unavoidable, but what they can do is be better prepared for the inevitable fall-out.

To suggest that they can carry on, blind to politics, demonstrates a lack of understanding of the reality of the situation. In any case is just untrue. After all, they’ve shown themselves to be quite aware of politics at other times: look at how police work over the last ten years (and more) has been dominated by issues of race – bending, as they had to, to the prevailing political environment.

Then to claim that they did it by the book, when that meant treating an MP in the same way as any criminal suspect on an inner London housing estate, doesn’t demonstrate impartiality. Rather it is the sort of approach that can erode respect for the police among members of society that would normally be its strongest supporters (not just Conservatives, but the normally law-abiding decent majority who will occasionally find themselves mixed up with operational policing). They wanted to prevent evidence being lost. Really? Treating a respected MP in the same way as a scummy Peckham drug dealer? Did they seriously think Green would be flushing documents down the loo as soon as he heard the knock on the door?

It seems to me that the operation was ham-fisted. Now I am not an expert on police procedure … but that’s the point. The Police do their job with the consent of the public, and this episode has done little to shore up that support. Straw man arguments about “MPs not being above the law” do not wash. I’m not qualified to suggest whether a search should have been carried out or not, but surely they should have got a search warrant and done it properly, even if the legal requirements were satisfied with just the Serjeant-at-Arms’ consent. I’m not necessarily suggesting Green shouldn’t have been brought into the investigation into the civil servant, but at least phone him and ask him to come down to the nick – turning up “mob-handed” was insensitive in a situation like this – and ultimately it may be the police themselves who suffer.

Beyond the actual raids and arrests, the PR operation (or lack of it?) was botched. The police should have seen the furore coming, and prepared for it. What has actually happened is that the Met has been set up to be the scapegoat. The Home Secretary’s weasel words about police operational independence were just part of the job of lining up the Met for a fall.

Take one detail: the presence of anti-terrorist officers at the searches. The Acting Commissioner explained on Wednesday that it was just because Special Branch and the Anti-Terrorist Branch had been merged. Fine, but why did it take five days before he explained this? The criticisms should have been foreseen and rebuttals prepared early. Hiding behind the textbook doesn’t work, especially when this was anything but a textbook situation and common sense should have been applied.

It seems that this layman is not the only one who thinks this way, if Andrew Pierce’s article in yesterday’s Telegraph (which, interestingly, was looking at the internal politics in the Met) is anything to go by:

One senior [Met. Police] source said: “Paul Stephenson knows he should have convened a meeting of some sort to consult on the impact of the arrest of an MP and search of his Commons office but he did not do that.

So, given that the police cannot and do not avoid politics, perhaps it is time to address that other fallacy: that the police are independent of government. How can they be while the Commissioner and Chief Constables are appointed by the Home Office? The Police can never be entirely independent of those who represent, and are elected by, those they seek to serve – but, it can be argued, nor should they be (so long as those lines of accountability are suitably short and properly drawn).

That is why it was right that Sir Ian Blair was effectively sacked by the Mayor of London and that the Commissioner should be appointed by the Mayor – or even directly elected himself. One man’s political interference is another’s democratic accountability.

UPDATE 9/4/09: So Bob Quick, the officer apparently responsible for ordering the Green raid, has been booted out resigned after inadvertently revealing confidential papers to press photographers. A silly mistake, and one that ordinarily would have earned, I guess, a slap on the wrist and some serious questions for newspaper editors. But of course this was Bob Quick, and it was the final straw on the camel’s back – no support from the present government, future government or London Mayor … and not, I suspect, from former opponent for the top job, Paul Stephenson.

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One response to “The Police and Politics

  1. UK Voter December 9, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    It is difficult to accept that this attack on parliamentary democracy was not politically motivated. However, I believe there is a risk that we end up losing sight of another very important aspect here, which relates to the civil liberties and rights of the individual. The government has consistently provided the police and security services more and more powers over the individual, even if this has been at the expense of our long held right to liberty.

    There needs to be a review of the powers that have been provided to the police service, given in many cases, the laws are being used in a way that was never intended. For example, the seizing of a friendly country’s assets using anti-terror laws, even though there was a raft of other legislation that could have been used. If we don’t retain our right to privacy, freedom of speech and civil liberties, what do we have left?

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