By Mark Wallace
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In Britain we have a proud policing tradition which has seen our forces of law and order stay more free of corruption than most others in the world. That makes it all the more shocking when an instance of corruption does come to light – and all the more important that we preserve our policing heritage by clamping down hard on problems when they arise.
So Theresa May is absolutely right to have set up an independent review of the murder of private detective Daniel Morgan. Since Mr Morgan's death in 1987, suspicions have lingered that he may have been killed because he had uncovered evidence of corruption within the Metropolitan Police. In 2011, Scotland Yard confirmed that corrupt officers had obstructed the original investigation into the killing.
The coalition government has a good record of confronting the wrongs of the past – from Hillsborough to Bloody Sunday. Mrs May is continuing that policy by lifting the lid on what seems likely to be a very uncomfortable story for the Met.
Police integrity and the stable rule of law are not, as some try to dismiss them, mere sideshows used for positive headlines. As well as the huge moral responsibility for the justice system to do what is right, it is crucial to our future economic and social prospects that Britain should be a country where all are equal before the law, wrongdoing is punished and no-one can evade justice through privilege, position or personal contacts.
The wider programme of police reform being driven by the Home Secretary also addresses this point. The priorities she identified in a speech in February were as follows:
We need the police to become much more transparent in their business. We need clearer rules for how officers should conduct themselves. We need to open up the top ranks so policing is less of a closed shop. We need to make sure officers who do wrong are investigated and punished. And we need to make sure that the organisations we ask to police the police are equipped to do the job.
Sad as it is to admit, this is necessary. Despite our fine policing tradition, and despite the excellent work done by most police officers, there are still far more problems than is acceptable.
On Friday, Newsnight reported on the case of James Watson, a solicitor who has won large damages from Cleveland Police. Malicious procurement of search warrants, false imprisonment of Mr Watson and his family, lies told to judges by officers, the suspicious disappearance of tapes and other evidence and other shocking behaviour has all come to light in what is, sad to say, only the latest in a long string of scandals in the Cleveland force in recent years.
A less severe but more widespread problem is the abuse of police databases by officers and staff. A 2011 report by Big Brother Watch revealed hundreds of instances of sensitive data being misused, with motivations ranging from self-interest to the potentially criminal – and those are just the ones the authorities already know about.
The vast majority of officers serve the people and the Crown well and honestly – but unless action is taken that majority will shrink, given the insidious tendency of corruption to spread.
Theresa May's policing reforms are radical, and they have – like just about every other reform in living memory – raised the ire of the Police Federation. The fears the Federation has raised are not only almost identical to those raised in the past, but they have proven to be untrue. Crime has fallen, despite dire warnings of a crime wave being "inevitable" when it was announced that police budgets were to be cut by 20% in real terms.
They are required, though, if we want to drive corruption out.
Police Comissioners are an obvious new way to help set right problems – particularly where the senior officers in a force lack the inclination to do so. Elected officials are far from immune from corruption (or inaction) but at least now those overseeing the police can be sacked by the electorate if they fail to act – something the old police authorities failed to offer.
Another crucial step is the Home Secretary's beefing up of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. It is almost unbelievable that until new legislation was passed last year, the IPCC had no powers to compel police officers and other staff to come to interviews.
An imbalance of resources means that most allegations of corruption are investigated by police forces themselves – the Home Affairs Select Committee found that only 100 out of 8,000 allegations were investigated independently by the IPCC. Happily, a sizeable chunk of investigation funding is to be moved from local forces to the IPCC, so more proper investigations can take place.
Human nature being what it is, police corruption will always be with us. Theresa May's mission is to make sure that it is as rare as possible – and that when it does occur, it will be exposed and punished. More power to her elbow.