In the last couple of years, three high-profile policing scandals have come to a head: the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the killing of Mark Duggan in 2011. The police have, by a number of different means, tried to take justice into their own hands, and the question has to be asked that if the police are accountable to the same laws as everyone else, why has more not been done to try and solve this problem, or at least assess the extent of it? Altering statements, testifying falsely in court and generally acting outside of the law are not acceptable – it isn’t the police’s job to decide who is innocent and who is guilty.
The probe into the Hillsborough disaster found that the South Yorkshire Police were at fault for the deaths, through negligence and inefficiency. While these can be attributed to human error, the more damning finding was that police accounts and witness statements were doctored by the police, in order to shift the blame away from them, and onto the victims of their negligence – a verdict that stood for over 20 years. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry of 1999 found that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”, and in 2006 some were found to have perverted the course of justice by withholding evidence. It took 19 years for Lawrence’s murderers to be held to account for their actions. Mark Duggan was shot dead by the police in 2011 despite having disposed of his firearm, provoking riots on a national level – but the killing was found to be lawful. Duggan was a known gangster, and the official verdict did not find the police at fault – but the reputation of the Met Police had been further damaged in the eyes of the public, and given the track record of judicial failings when the police are involved, who is to say that this decision too won’t be overturned in 20 years time?
One of the key issues is that despite the alleged equality of testimony in our country, the police are invariably trusted to testify honestly, and the Duggan case is just one example of how police testimony is viewed as almost indisputable evidence – the unconditional trust in the police is clearly misplaced. It could be argued that as officers of the law, this is deserved – but given the examples of occasions on which they have been found, in retrospect, to have perverted the course of justice (such as with the recent ‘Plebgate’ scandal), is it not time for this privilege to be revoked? And given that it appears to take decades of campaigning to ensure justice, how do we know that these goings-on aren’t even more commonplace than we think? Police testimony is regularly used in the execution of justice, often as outright evidence – if even a tiny minority of police officers cannot be trusted to act honestly and follow legal procedure, then surely their position as law enforcers is compromised?
Such a widespread investigation into police conduct would not be entirely without precedent – in 1997, a Royal Commission found that in the police forces of New South Wales, Australia, “corruption and misconduct” were “systemic and entrenched”. Crucially, this verdict left no alternative to a thorough reform of the system, restoring the integrity and reputation of the police in that state, and acting to enhance the administration of justice. An investigation into the police forces of Great Britain, with more powers than the largely ineffectual IPCC, and a commitment to widespread reform should it be found that the police services are fundamentally ineffective, would go a long way to bringing down the wall that has been built up between the police and the general public over the last 30 years. There is little doubt that the vast majority of police officers are honest, and committed to assisting the course of justice, but the failure to address the minority that are damaging our judiciary has left its reputation in tatters, seemingly beyond repair. Until a detailed investigation into the police force as a whole has been carried out, we cannot truly claim to have a just and fair legal system – and it is vital that we address this issue before the international reputation of our judiciary, as well as the trust in it of our people, is compromised any further. It would be a complex and expensive process, but the potential positive consequences easily outweigh any negatives that may be incurred.
Contributed by Charlie Worthington