Thursday, 10 February 2011

"Congratulations! You win the keys to an Austin Allegro."

A very unusual title, but let me explain. In the early 1980s there was a very large, very loud and very brusque DCI. And that was the phrase he uttered when a detective had messed up, though I don't think he actually said 'messed'. He was true to his word; within days if not hours the unfortunate officer would don a dusted-off uniform and be patrolling the (then not so mean) streets of north London in one of British Leyland's finest Panda cars.

Somehow over the last 30 years the Police Service lost that ability, that preparedness to judge and then to act upon it. Following the thinking that saw competitive sport replaced by trampolining in our schools and our educational qualifications being watered down so as to be almost meaningless, nobody could be labelled a loser. Blame became a dirty word, followed quickly by responsibility. While Police Officers would rightly be sacked for corruption, dishonesty or criminal acts, making mistakes was forgivable, almost acceptable.

However, lest we appeared arrogant, a way had to be invented to show our acceptance of failings but without picking on the individuals and their errors which had caused them. A lead was given by the Macpherson report, with its now almost infamous construction of the concept of 'institutional racism'. Here was the answer - the organisation can blame itself, take the criticism, promise to change and to do better, but leave the individuals alone, irrespective of what they had done. This was obviously the correct stance where some feature of the organisation's methods were to blame, but it was realised it could also be used even in those cases where the organisation wasn't really at fault - where the processes and protocols were sound, it was just that they weren't followed.

The Met, or at least certain sections of it, have invented a buzz-phrase for this - 'organisational contrition'. And in most cases now, that is as far as it will go. We have seen it already in relation to demonstrations and some investigations - the ACPO officer saying sorry in front of the revolving sign is now a common sight.

There is a high-profile case currently sub-judice where I am pretty certain these issues will become very public, but that of course must wait. However, as the resurrected phone-hacking investigations gets underway, the line is that there will be a new strategy, new tactics - but woe betide anyone who concludes from this that the original investigation was flawed. The new one is different, that's all, not better.

DAC Sue Akers who is heading it is an experienced, smart and practical officer, whom I admire and respect. We can have every confidence that the investigation will now be progressed thoroughly. But although there might appear to have been a reluctance to act in the past, a lack of progress despite information being available and so the possibility of errors having been made, we shouldn't expect finger-pointing. I doubt any detective will have won the keys to a Vauxhall Astra.

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