More fundamental questions must be asked about the role of our police in the wake of the Baroness Casey review

The publication this morning of Baroness Louise Casey’s 360 page report into the Metropolitan police has rightly shocked the nation. Commissioned in the aftermath of the rape, kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard by serving Met PC Wayne Couzens in March 2021, Baroness Casey was appointed by the Met to lead an independent probe of its culture and standards of behaviour.

Most people were already aware that something fundamental was amiss with the London force, but few were prepared for what was to emerge from what Baroness Casey described as her “rigorous, stark and unsparing” investigation. When Met boss Sir Mark Rowley saw the first drafts of the report back in October of last year he admitted that he cried after reading that officers were breaking the law and being retained by the force.

The report also found “institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia” within the Metropolitan force and that complaints were “likely to be turned against” ethnic minority officers, with black officers 81% more likely to be in the misconduct system than white colleagues. Officers had provided the Casey Review with harrowing testimony about how they were treated by colleagues.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said this morning that trust in the police had been “hugely damaged” and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said: “Today is without doubt one of the darkest days in the history of our almost 200-year-old Met Police service.”

Baroness Casey of Blackstock (a past pupil of Oaklands Catholic School, Waterlooville), is a straight talking, no-nonsense, troubleshooter respected by governments across the political divide, and she made it clear this morning that she thinks the Met should be broken up if it can’t improve. Frankly, reading this harrowing report, the time for such opportunities has probably long gone as it’s clear the organisation is broken, rotten and dysfunctional at all levels. This report is also going to raise more wide-ranging questions about the general state of UK policing, as other forces around the UK have very similar structures and operating methods.

It’s a great irony that sorting out and supporting our police forces has been one of the obligatory mantras of all governments – more nurses, more defence spending, more doctors and more police on our streets. From the look of things, policing has today become yet another broken service that has been abandoned by our legislators. The Casey report has also warned that “public consent is broken” with just 50% of the public expressing confidence, even before revelations about the force’s worst recent scandals.

This is all coming at a pivotal moment when it looks very likely that we are going to have to confront unprecedented societal upheavals, and this at a time when confidence in our police forces is hitting a new and dangerous low.

“The Met has become unanchored from the Peelian principle of policing by consent set out when it was established,” Baroness Casey reports, but the roots of this particular problem go back decades. Most people alive today would have no knowledge of ‘policing by consent’, and many of us have been brought up with a very contrary relationship. One only has to look back to the political turbulence of the 1980s when the police were – not without justification – dubbed “Mrs Thatcher’s boot boys”. Their behaviour towards members of the public at confrontations like the miners’ strike and the shameful ‘Battle of Orgreave’, the dispute at Wapping, Greenham Common, the Hillsborough tragedy and the poll tax riots have left a legacy of severe ill-will and mistrust towards the police, who had come to believe they could behave with impunity.

The vicious backlash to Home Secretary Theresa May’s subsequent determination to ‘reform’ the police service two decades is evidence that forces had come to regard themselves as untouchable. Sadly, the May/Cameron reforms were fuelled principally by an austerity drive rather than any concern for the internal health of policing, and served only to exacerbate further an already crumbling and corrupt institution.

As she rose to speak in the House of Commons at lunchtime, Home Secretary Suella Braverman was clearly aware of the political dangers of criticising the police force. “I back the police,” she stated rather blandly, and emphasised that many of us can never imaging the challenges they face – citing the murder of PC Keith Palmer, who was stabbed to death outside Parliament in 2017. She also took issue with Baroness Casey’s allegation that the racism, misogyny and homophobia in the Met was “institutional”.

“It’s an ambiguous, contested, and politically-charged term that is much-misused, and risks making it harder for officers to win back the trust of communities,” Braverman argued.

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper responded that the home secretary’s statement was “dangerously complacent”, a typical example of the a continuation of the “hands-off” Home Office response that Casey has criticised in her report.

One can’t help but get the sense here that Baroness Casey’s report is going to go the way of so many investigations, sinking into a mire of accusations and counter-accusations that will do little to solve the fundamentally serious problems under scrutiny. Meanwhile, policing as a vocation and a public service continues to recede into the history books, and the process of maintaining law and order moves ever more towards chaos and collapse.

From a theological perspective many of the problems we’re seeing in policing today have emerged from a government narrative that constructs the police as ‘crime fighters’. Crime is bad, police fight and prevent crime, therefore the police are a force for good. Whilst this over-simplistic view may be attractive to both politicians and voters, it will forever cloud our ability to seek meaningful and lasting solutions to both the problems within policing, and in the nature of crime itself. Given where it sits in the hierarchy of public ideas, policing today is fundamentally political in nature, and is primarily an agency of government and – by extension – of the legal system and commercial interests.

One only has to look at the level of police resources being directed at public protests, shoplifting, traffic offences and the protection of commerce to see that there are fundamental questions that need asking about whom exactly is protecting whom, and from what. When we are continually given the narrative that individual police offers protect individual members of the public from individual criminals, it’s a scenario that plays dubiously into our deepest fears and insecurities. Whilst no-one wants to be, or deserves to be, the victim of an individual and personal crime, we should never prevent such fears from raising a far more fundamental set of questions about the role of the police in a democratic society.

Similar questions also need to be asked about the nature and treatment of crime itself, as Theresa Alessandro has so eloquently explored in this week’s guest blog. Theresa, who is the Catholic Community Engagement Manager at Pact, the national Catholic prisons charity, states that “we already incarcerate more people per capita than any other Western European country”, and she notes that “it is already the case that children are more likely to experience having a parent in prison than divorce”.

Unquestionably this is largely because we have amassed such a significant body of criminalisation and incidents that lead to incarceration, when rehabilitation would not only be a far better economic solution but of greater societal benefit too. Asking that our police officers deal with and implement such a flawed, negative and emotionally demanding political process was always going to lead to an increasing disconnect between those who ought to be employed to ensure our safety and freedoms, and those who feel their liberty is being increasingly threatened.

Perhaps most worrying, the growth and dominance of such an authoritarian approach to policing is inevitably going to attract individuals with a dangerously unhealthy interest in being part of such a disfunctional organisation. Given that, we can hardly be surprised at increasing incidents of police brutality, misogyny and other criminal behaviour within our police forces. Punishing and ejecting those who are eventually dragged out into the open may make for useful political rhetoric, but far more fundamental questions need to be asked about the nature of criminality, and the role of policing in a modern, diverse and democratic society.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian


Theresa Alessandro’s blog: