Some allegations made by the police are wrong. Sometimes policemen even make things up entirely. Policemen will back each other up with falsehoods. Policemen fabricate evidence, alter witness statements, influence false accusers to come forwards.
Not every child abuse allegation is true. Not every woman who cries "Rape!" was raped. Not every alleged terrorist was plotting murder and mayhem. Not every politician fixes her expenses, has corrupt business practices or cheats on his wife.
The above is hardly news, but the reaction of many in the press to the Mitchell affair suggests that they hadn't really grasped it before. They wail that we can never trust the police again, after this, on top of Hillsborough, somehow forgetting the Birmingham Six or the many other famous cases of the past.
I'm a Christian. Two of the main Biblical heroes – Joseph and Jesus – are falsely accused (the one of rape, the other of blasphemy). I'm a philosopher. The greatest of all philosophical heroes, Socrates, was executed after being falsely accused of corrupting the young and various other crimes. The most fundamental principle in our system of criminal law is that the burden of proof lies with the accusers, and those accused are considered innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. This is an application of the Ninth Commandment, "Do not make false accusations", in law, every bit as much as laws against theft or murder enact other Commandments.
What these wailers are really complaining about isn't the police. Policemen are today pretty much as policemen always were. What their moaning is about is their own previous errors. If you had been daft and naive enough to think there was no problem with random stop-and-search, random breathalzyer tests, getting rid of the right to silence, compulsory ID cards, 90 day detention without charge, control orders, the removal of the right to face your accusers, retrospective lawmaking, or the other paraphernalia of the authoritarian state constructed these past 20 years, perhaps it's a blow for you to discover that policemen are humans not angels. But if you had ever properly comprehended why civil liberties, due process, and the burden of proof lying with the accuser were important, there's nothing new to see or say from recent events.
For policemen don't, by and large, lie and fabricate and back each other up falsely (on those rare occasions when they do these things) because they are bad guys. They do these things because they are good guys. If you believe someone has committed a terrible crime and you are sure you have the right person but can't quite put together sufficiently decisive evidence to get him, you won't want him able to walk the streets free to commit more crimes. You'll want to see him locked up. And if that means failing to mention some evidence that might be misinterpreted as suggesting his guilt, or creating some evidence that would probably exist somewhere if we could only find it but we've been unlucky so far, of course a policeman will be tempted to do that and sometimes give in to that temptation. If you want your fellow officers to support you some time when you're under violent attack or being investigated by a review board over the shooting of someone that turned out not to have a gun – if you want there to be team play – then you will feel strongly inclined to support another officer when she makes an allegation, even if you weren't strictly speaking there, or didn't strictly speaking see exactly what she saw. If politicians who don't have to experience the blunt realities of crowd control are going to seize and distort particular passages in and inconsistencies between police reports on an unfortunate trampling incident involving a crowd, of course senior officers are going to be tempted to inspect reports to ensure they are reasonably consistent with one another.
Policemen are by and large good guys doing a vey tough job that those that criticise them wouldn't want to do. And it is precisely because they are good guys that we need to be very strict with them and that we need to have strict procedures to test the evidence they produce and even stricter principles and procedures to limit their exercise of arbitrary power.
Discovering that the police are human should not cause us to lose our faith in the police. It should only cause us to doubt what we should never have believed in – the concept that accusers can be assumed almost always to be truthful and accurate and that authoritarianism is only a threat to the guilty.