Thursday, February 29, 2024

Top police chief says Met has no ‘God-given right’ to exist without public trust

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The Metropolitan police has no “God-given right” to exist in its current size and form if it cannot regain the trust and confidence it has haemorrhaged after a series of scandals, the leader of Britain’s police chiefs has said.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said that the new Met commissioner, Mark Rowley, had been unflinching in taking on the challenges facing Britain’s biggest force and deserved time to turn it around.

A report from Lady Casey is expected on Tuesday to severely criticise the Met for multiple failings including misogyny, racism and homophobia.

In a wide-ranging Guardian interview to mark his departure as NPCC chair and retirement after three decades in policing, Hewitt said it would take years to regain lost trust.

Hewitt also warned that policing was facing severe financial pressures, with the need to make hundreds of millions of pounds in savings.

Hewitt said that the criminal justice system was no longer “effective” and failing too many victims due to underinvestment as well as Covid backlogs leading to unacceptable delays.

He cited the six-year delay the victims of the 2017 Grenfell fire had suffered without finding out if anyone would face criminal charges. “It is upsetting and wrong”.

Hewitt became the “chief of the chiefs” as NPCC chair in 2019 after serving as a Met assistant commissioner.

The force’s reputation has been shredded after years of scandals including the murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens and the serial rapist David Carrick. In both cases police blunders had failed to stop the Met officers earlier in their criminal careers.

Hewitt said the crises were as bad as any in his three decades as an officer: “There’s no doubt that it feels as difficult now as it has ever felt.

“I honestly can’t think of a point in 30 years when I was more depressed about the service and about being part of it … It made me ashamed.”

He accepted that policing’s “leadership” had questions to answer and that police culture and processes needed reform, with all forces – not just the Met – having work to do. “Ultimately the leadership of an organisation … … sets the tone within the organisation, sets the processes.”

Hewitt told the Guardian that failure to restore trust – currently about 50% of those questioned say they trust the Met, meaning it is just clinging on to legitimacy in London – could damage the ability to fight crime.

Hewitt said: “It’s not being melodramatic, but the role and the position of policing is fundamental to society, in terms of how our society runs, and that sense of rule of law, that sense of feeling secure, that sense of being able to trust policing.”

The vast majority of officers were as disgusted as the public, and chiefs were determined to reform, he said. The NPCC chair denied leaders had turned a blind eye to wrongdoing but added: “You can’t police where there is no legitimacy from the public. No organisation has a God-given right to continue existing as it does. That’s going to be a matter for others to look at.”

He stressed that Rowley had made changes in his first six months as commissioner, and said : “My city needs to have confidence in the police force. Mark is going a long way to really taking on the issues that I think matter to Londoners, and needs to be given the opportunity to deliver on that.”

The Met represents about one quarter of policing in England and Wales and leads the national counter-terrorism effort. Plans under consideration when Theresa May was home secretary could have transferred that responsibility to the National Crime Agency.

Policing’s focus for two years has been on trust and confidence but the NPCC chair warned forces faced new financial hardship.

From 2010 to 2019 the Conservative government cut police budgets as part of austerity, then decided to replace the 20,000 officers lost across England and Wales.

Hewitt said new pain was coming, with the NPCC believing inflationary pressures dictate savings of at least £400m.

He said forces were still damaged by austerity and “recovering”, but also dealing with other indirect effects: “A lot of the demand that we deal with to try and help the public is as a result of austerity in other parts of the public sector. What austerity did to social services, to community services within local authorities, to the general capacity that local authorities had, look at the level of demands that policing deals with that is as a direct result of mental health.

“If you talked about something like 40% of what comes into policing being non-core policing in one form or another, it would not be an unrealistic figure.”

Hewitt said government must order a review of the whole justice system urgently.

”The criminal justice system has been under enormous pressure for some time … particularly from the victim perspective, the criminal justice system at the moment does not work for victims almost from start to finish.

“I think you could argue that lots of victims end up failed.”

Hewitt, who came to public prominence during the Covid crisis, revealed some in government wanted even more draconian lockdowns and told of how he and other police chiefs had battled to protect their operational independence

Hewitt was in numerous high-level meetings as the crisis erupted in 2020 and condemned the former health secretary Matt Hancock, who in leaked messages dismissed the police as “plod” and claimed they were doing the government’s bidding: “It’s an offensive word for a former government minister to use, entirely disrespectful.”

He said that, during tense discussions, while the then home secretary Priti Patel and policing minister Kit Malthouse respected the operational independence of chief constables, others wanted more direct central control of how fiercely the lockdown would be policed: “So at every turn, and with every decision there were always going to be questions about, quite frankly, how hard is this enforced?

“You would have elements of government that wanted everything to be completely locked down, no one can do anything. You had other elements that were much more about: we need to give as much freedom as possible.”

He said the current home secretary, Suella Braverman, was wrong to claim police were wasting their time because they were woke and politically correct: “I don’t share that view. I think that day in day out, what the police service does, because mostly because of the nature of the job, is that we deliver common sense policing.

He added: “Politicians have gotta do what politicians are doing, you know, they’re doing politics, I’m doing policing.”

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