The Golden Age of policing?

Police-blue-lampby Mike Newland.

A common reaction to the dubious events surrounding Plebgate has been to say that if this can happen to a Cabinet Minister then what hope does the ordinary citizen have.

Umpteen arrests among police and the furore about others from the Police Federation who interviewed Andrew Mitchell. It’s a mess! Predictably, there has appeared gushing prose about how the entire affair has damaged the ancient and noble traditions of British policing admired throughout the world. Oh pleazy pleaze!

Let’s sketch out how policing really worked in the past. And it had little to do with the fictional George Dixon who was portrayed as standard issue British copper in the national myth. A man of maturity, honesty and deep common sense.

The police were employed to keep decent citizens – mainly the middle-class – safe from the worst elements among the British population. How this was done was very much out of sight and out of mind of most of the public who were not much interested in the detail. The police, of course, left the middle-class largely alone on the basis that whatever fiddles they were up to were likely not ones covered by the criminal law.

Down at the coal face, the basic principle of policing was that by some means or other the bad guys should regularly be locked up for what they were doing. Whether the precise offences they were brought to court for were ones they had actually committed was not important. They certainly ‘deserved what they got’ one way or another.

Hence policing was conducted often on the basis of the traditional beating in cells or van (injuries explained by the suspect ‘resisting arrest’, ‘fell down stairs’ at the nick and so on), the ‘diabolical fit up’, the great British ‘verbal’ and on the principle that a known crim who was ‘at it’ would soon be ‘well overdue’ for a spell away. The entire criminal justice system understood this and supported it as ‘noble cause corruption’. Hence the prevailing practice of refusing to accept that the police would lie.

The trouble with a system like it was that if you are corrupt in one direction you will likely be corrupt in another. It was not always the bad guys who ‘got what they deserved’. Ghastly miscarriages of justice were inevitable and money changed hands on quite a scale.

Interestingly, the ‘had it coming to him’ attitude is said to have been applied by police to Andrew Mitchell – according to the press anyway. Quite a few politicians have a very high-handed attitude to underlings.

As the traditional class system declined from the 1960s onwards the police had begun little by little to have a go at the middle-class. It was this which began insidiously to undermine the confidence of respectable citizens that they could turn a blind eye as to how the police actually did their work.

During the late 1970s, several very senior policemen were given sentences of over ten years for taking bribes from porn shops. The amount being handed over was estimated at an incredible £100,000 a year in then money. We are talking half a million in today’s moolah. Indeed, one of the investors in the scheme became so worried that the lavish lifestyle of one officer would give the game away that he provided him with slimming drugs and a rowing machine! The judge at one trial said that the ‘level of corruption beggared description’.

All this was, of course, merely the extreme tip of how the system worked.

In 1978, GF Newman’s series of plays Law and Order exploded onto television screens. Newman had friends in the police and based the plays on what he knew as well as on what had emerged in public. A horribly graphic tale about fitting-up and bribery which caused such a stink that attempts were made to ensure it was not shown abroad lest Britain’s image should be tarnished.

The general practices of the police also left much to be desired. People could be detained without being arrested into a legal halfway house within which they were not under arrest but not free to go.

Touring the streets and seizing people who did not fit the general perception of respectability or simply did not look to the policeman’s taste was common. Take them to the cells and see if anything can be found suggesting crime. I experienced this in Hackney in the early 1980s. I was walking out of the door of a cafe reading a newspaper when I was told to get in the van. No arrest and no reason given. Released from the cells an hour or two later. No they did not find anything! Most people who lived through that era will have similar stories to tell.

Police warrant cards were often known as ‘international disco passes’ it appears. There was, however, at least some good sense in that. The club owner was assured of the presence of police who might serve to prevent trouble. Peel after all defined the primary purpose of policing as being to prevent crime.

But something had to be done and in the end it was. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1986 (PACE)changed the system utterly and introduced many at least hoped for protections from police abuse. The halfway house was abolished. Interviews were soon taped to the prevent the practice of ‘verballing’. The accused had often said: “It’s a fair cop guv. I’m bang to rights on this blag”.

Custody officers were introduced who had to keep a record of everything. This unfortunately included video surveillance of the custody desk. Difficult to understand why one policeman was recently filmed twisting a suspect’s arm behind his back. The job surely is to control oneself even when dealing with very annoying people.

1986 marks a very sharp change from the old system. It’s much more difficult for serious corruption to occur in some directions and police are not necessarily believed. But corruption undoubtedly continues.

What also continues is actions not corrupt in themselves but grossly incompetent and sadistically indifferent to the public welfare like the man who died after being pushed to the ground while straying near a demonstration, and another tasered umpteen times in a police van for no reason. In both cases, it must be said, officers were sacked to national publicity. The Dixon era is certainly long departed.

One could well argue that British policing is more democratic than ever before. Cabinet Minister or recidivist villain you may well be ill-served. Policing is also probably on balance far less corrupt than ever before rather than having gone to the bad after a Golden Age.

But that’s not saying a lot!


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  1. There’s very little (if anything) in this article that I would disagree with.

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