by Martin Odoni

This week’s statement from police chiefs appears to have been an attempt to reassure the British public that corruption in the force is something they take seriously. Sadly, if that really is the case, it will surely only backfire.

The statement is meant as an official response to the report published by the Right Reverend James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool, headed The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power. The report had been commissioned by Theresa May back in 2016, when she was still the Home Secretary, to reflect the rebooted Inquests into the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989, and the terrible subsequent mistreatment of survivors and relatives of the deceased by the state.

What is so ‘anti-reassuring’ – if there is such a term – is that the report was published some six years ago. Now, yes, it is fair enough needing time to agree and codify a series of reforms in response, but this was effectively the first time the police have offered any substantive reply to Jones’ work.

This is not to say that the reforms therein are unwelcome or unlikely to prevent a repeat of the emotional brutality displayed by the South Yorkshire Police force in the 1980s.

The reforms are; –

  1. All police forces in England and Wales have signed up to a Charter for Families Bereaved Through Public Tragedy which sets out that police organisations must acknowledge when mistakes have been made and must not seek to defend the indefensible.
  2. The College of Policing and National Police Chiefs’ Council have agreed the content of a new Code of Practice on police information and records management to prevent the problems faced after the Hillsborough Disaster when records were lost or destroyed. This Code has been submitted to the Home Office for ministerial approval, following which it can be laid before Parliament in accordance with the Police Act 1996.
  3. The College of Policing’s Code of Ethics – applicable to everyone working in policing – will be revised this year and candour will be a key theme.
    There will be a supporting Code of Practice, which chief officers must have regard to, which will state that ‘Chief officers have a responsibility to ensure openness and candour within their force’.
  4. New national guidance for Family Liaison Officers has been issued, incorporating learning from the Hillsborough Families Report, the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the 2017 terrorist attacks.
  5. The College of Policing released updated disaster victim identification Authorised Professional Practice in August 2018 in direct response to the report, including an explicit statement that the terms ‘belonging to’ or ‘property of the coroner’ should not be used in future disasters.

All fine, even positive. In particular, the long-overdue duty-of-candour is a critical step in the right direction. (If you think about it, it is frankly terrifying that such a requirement has never been in place in English Common Law.)

But the worry is that the incredible time it has taken just to get to this point suggests that this is not a matter that the British Police are treating with much urgency. And by extension, one worries that implementation will be treated equally casually. Bishop Jones himself is particularly concerned at the complete disinterest shown by the Government, which seems more interested in giving police even more powers to misuse than in addressing corruption.

As the Disaster unfolded
Police incompetence caused the Disaster. Police dishonesty tried to conceal its true origins

The official reason for the delay is that various legal processes had to be completed before the statement could be made public. Unfortunately, this does not quite wash. After all, even if the statement had to be kept under wraps, the reforms could have been implemented long before its release, and it is plain to see that this has not happened; –

Given the appalling casual sleaze being uncovered almost daily in the Metropolitan Police, and their general misuse of authority – remember how they attacked a peaceful vigil for a woman one of their own officers had raped and murdered – it is clear that changes are only just starting. But these reforms really needed to become a legal requirement before 2020.

And one or two of the thoughts shared by high-ranking officers in the statement, although they sound compassionate at first, do seem rather to misportray the enormity of what happened after Hillsborough.

Most worrisome were the words of Chief Constable Andy Marsh, head of the College of Policing. He said, “Policing has profoundly failed those bereaved by the Hillsborough Disaster over many years and we are sorry that the service got it so wrong.” (Emphasis added.)

This is better than pretending nothing bad happened after Hillsborough, but it does not truly reflect the reality. Marsh speaks of the police service ‘getting it wrong,’ after the Disaster. This makes it sounds like the subsequent cover-up and blame-shift by the South Yorkshire Police were all ‘a mistake.’ It was not, it was deliberate, orchestrated, premeditated corruption. It was an abuse of privileged media access (planting untrue stories in the press while using source-anonymity rules to prevent the stories being traced back), and a deliberate attempt to disrupt and distort the legal process of investigation by keeping important details hidden from the Taylor Inquiry.

If officers like Marsh really believe that candour is the way ahead for the police – and it most definitely should be – then they have to practice it. They must be unhesitating in calling the cover-up what it was, they need to resist the temptation to use euphemisms for police foul play, and above all they need to start treating the ongoing desperate need for reform with the urgency it still requires.