The Met on the mat

A new culture of ethics, not deterrent punishments alone, can transform the conduct of the police

Published - October 06, 2021 12:15 am IST

A view of a Metropolitan police officer on patrol, in London.

A view of a Metropolitan police officer on patrol, in London.

The Metropolitan Police of London are in the news for the wrong reasons. The gruesome murder of a teacher, Sabina Nessa (28), when she was walking through a park in south-east London to meet her friend at a pub, has caused outrage. The police have been accused of negligence yet again. An Albanian garage worker has been held as a suspect.

Diminishing trust in the police

According to the media, since the death of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, in March this year, at least 81 women have been killed in the U.K. where the suspects are men. Many critics bemoan the fact that women are not being protected despite the Met being led by a woman Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick.

What has added fuel to the fire is that a Met police officer, Wayne Couzens, was arrested for raping and murdering Everard. Couzens falsely arrested Everard on the charge of violating COVID-19 restrictions, forced her into a hired car, drove far away, raped her, strangled her and then burnt the body. Couzens had planned his barbaric crime for several weeks. Everard was a random target — a lone young woman negotiating a poorly lit area. It is appalling that despite being linked to two previous allegations of indecent exposure, Couzens had gone unpunished. This was culpable indifference on the part of senior officers. It is difficult to believe that this despicable behaviour had not been escalated to more senior officers.

One is reminded of the senseless deaths of a father and son in Sattankulam in Tamil Nadu. They were arrested allegedly for keeping their shop open and thus violating lockdown restrictions. They later died in hospital, after being tortured by the police in custody. The police in the U.S. have a similar inglorious record. One cannot forget how in May 2020, a black man, George Floyd, was pinned to the ground by three police officers in Minneapolis until he died of suffocation. His crime was that he had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit bill at a convenience store.

Two points emerge from these and other episodes, some of which are reported and many of which are buried stealthily. Police organisations in several parts of the world are not trusted for civilised and lawful behaviour. This is despite the many mechanisms that are in place that do not permit clandestine police actions against crime suspects. The numerous controls that have been established have not had the desired effect.

A few unscrupulous and overzealous policemen are responsible for this sorry situation. Blame sometimes also lies at the door of a few in the political executive who misuse their authority to settle personal scores with their adversaries. The judiciary has tried to set right this distortion in the criminal justice system, but success has been marginal. The Chief Justice of India recently gave expression to his misgivings on police conduct. But deterrent punishments are not the answer; only a new culture of ethics can bring about visible transformation. Bringing about such a change will take decades and requires enlightened police as well as political leadership. Merely upgrading police technology, such as compulsory body cameras on patrol policemen and video recording of police station proceedings, without a corresponding change in mindset will not be enough.

Perhaps most painful is the popular impression that women are easy prey to marauding policemen. It is unfortunate that the whole force gets a bad name because of a few deviants such as the senior officer in Tamil Nadu who is facing trial for sexual harassment of a female colleague. This is no justification, however, for showing any latitude to the police leadership or police officers.

A possible example for all chiefs

Met Commissioner Dick is a doughty warrior. She is the first woman to occupy this position. It is a travesty that a force headed by a distinguished woman officer is being accused of gender insensitivity. She has been facing calls to resign ever since the murder of Everard. But she has never shown inclination to step down. She apologised for the Met’s failure in recognising the danger posed by Couzens and said she would do everything in her power to ensure that the force has learned from “one of the most dreadful events” in its history. Her resolve to make London safer is impressive and could set an example for police chiefs everywhere.

Many good choices have been made in several Indian cities. Commissioners are being credited with striking innovations in the area of response to distress calls from the public, especially women and the elderly. The pursuit of speed and professionalism in this regard is a never-ending challenge. Enormous government funding for additional infrastructure — both manpower and technology — can help shape a sleek and humane police force. But only marginally.

R.K. Raghavan, former CBI Director, is Professor of Criminal Justice and Policing at the Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana

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