Should we break up the Met? We asked experts what comes next after the Casey Review

The Casey Review raised the idea of breaking up the Met Police. Should we defund the police? Here's what experts think

Met Police, defund the police, break up the met

Police arrest an Extinction Rebellion activist in 2022. Image: Gareth Morris/Extinction Rebellion

The Met Police is institutionally racist, with discrimination “baked in” to the system, the Casey Review found this week. Along with exposing a litany of failures to protect Londoners, the landmark report also raised the spectre of breaking up the Met if the situation does not improve.

“If sufficient progress is not being made at the points of further review, more radical, structural options, such as dividing up the Met into national, specialist and London responsibilities, should be considered to ensure the service to Londoners is prioritised,” Casey wrote.

It’s a debate you might be familiar with. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the concept of “defund the police” and police abolition entered the mainstream in the UK. Keir Starmer even called it “nonsense”.

Yet police misconduct, especially in the Met, is not new. Since the Macpherson report into the death of Steven Lawrence, report after review after report has laid bare a rotten culture and failed victims.

So what comes next? We spoke to experts from a range of backgrounds to outline the options for reforming the police.

The former Victims’ Commissioner: Directly recruit detectives and have an external body to vet officers

Dame Vera Baird was the most recent Victims’ Commissioner. She resigned in September, accusing justice secretary Dominic Raab of ‘deceptively and deliberately’ undermining her, and her role has yet to be filled.

Before that, she was a Labour MP and cabinet minister, and then the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria.

“I spent all my time trying to get money for the police, not defund them, because there’s a lot for them to do. I don’t think there is any option of rejecting police in a wholesale way,” she said.

“What we have to do is open it up, modernise it and bring it closer to the community.”

What would that look like? One option is an external body to help recruit and vet officers, Baird said,

“They don’t think they’re public servants. They think they’re swaggering, quasi-military, know-it-all, men, don’t they?”

This, Baird argued, was difficult for the police themselves to fix. Officers need to be vetted for their attitude to the public, as well as for their ability to do the job.

“I don’t think the police can do that, because they don’t see what they don’t see, do they? Because they’re soaked in the culture too,” she said.

Another option is directly recruiting detectives. The nature of crime has changed, Baird said, with a growing prevalence of sexual crimes and domestic abuse. 

These need specialists, who don’t necessarily need to have gone through riot training or the standard police career paths. Officers would still have to learn the law, but the “boot camp stuff” wouldn’t be necessary.

“I wonder whether there is any need at all for every copper to be quasi-military,” Baird added.

Baird floated, as an example, recruiting women working in domestic abuse refuges to investigate cases.

Joining these together would be a change in what’s rewarded, and what helps officers move up in their careers. A culture of emulating past failures and ingrained ways of working needs replacing.

“I used to say to my chief constable, when I used to come and present awards, it was always about somebody who chased somebody down the street,” she said.

“It was never about somebody who’s supported a domestic abuse victim successfully to leave a horrible violent partner, and set up a new life with their children, and a new job. I said the day there’s an award for domestic abuse, I’ll know we’ve turned the corner.”

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The corruption campaigner: The whole situation is so tainted, it’s unlikely a clean-up will work

“I’ve seen it before several times,” says Alastair Morgan, of talk about Met reform.

He has. Daniel Morgan, Alastair’s brother, was a private detective in South London. In March 1987, he was found in a pub car park with an axe in his neck. Amid allegations of corruption and cover-up, five police investigations failed.

Morgan’s three-decade fight for justice led to the 1,200 page Daniel Morgan report, one of the series we’ve seen in the past 20 years, branding the Met “institutionally corrupt” for its failures.

So he is sceptical the Met will get the “radical, life-saving surgery” it needs.

“The whole situation is so tainted now that it’s highly unlikely we’ll see any really successful clean-up of the Met. I think what there will be is some cosmetic changes with some of the low-hanging fruit being hung out to dry,” he said.

“I think that’ll be it, and then it’ll be ‘oh we’ve cleaned up, lessons learned, that was then, this is now’. The usual rhetoric, and then on we go.”

Breaking up the Met would result in “a bunch of different police forces all stabbing each other in the back”, while a “corrupt” government makes the political climate for change difficult.

Some change could come from a wholesale change in senior leadership – who are too enmeshed in the culture – and from increased prosecutions for deaths in custody, he said.

“Large elements of the top brass need to go,” he said.

The think tank expert: Hand over specialist units and focus on policing London well

The Met is in the last chance saloon, said Rick Muir of the Police Foundation think tank.

“I think you give it one big last chance to reform itself, then if it isn’t able to do that I think you have to look at options,” he said.

In the meantime, Muir said better vetting, and making it easier to dismiss officers guilty of gross misconduct would help turn the situation around.

There’s also a culture where officers don’t report incidents, he said, describing ​​”a minority of officers who are behaving unprofessionally and criminally in some cases, but then they’re surrounded by a wider culture of silence”.

It is possible for things to change, with Muir pointing to an increase in confidence in policing in the 2000s. From neighbourhood policing, supporting young people, and early intervention to prevent crime: “None of this is rocket science, we kind of know what works in policing.” 

In some ways, the Met is a victim of areas where it succeeds, Muir added, citing excellent counterterror and firearms units.

“I think all that creates an image that ‘we’re the best in Britain, we’re the best in the world’. I think that creates a sort of arrogance,” he said.

But if things do not change, Muir laid out some options for deeper reform.

Putting specialist functions such as counter-terror and diplomatic protection in the hands of an independent organisation, such as the National Crime Agency, would streamline the Met.

“I think that could be done in a relatively straightforward way, because they’re relatively self contained,” he said.

This would give the Met more room to focus on policing London, with more autonomy given to police in individual boroughs.

But, to change, the Met needs to respond better to crises and criticism. “What hasn’t changed at all is that the Met’s response to criticism is always an ingrained institutional defensiveness,” he said.

“That fundamental culture of not getting it and not changing, battening down the hatches and hoping the world will go away, that culture has been continuous. That’s the thing that has to change. In many ways, that’s probably the most difficult thing to change. But that’s what Mark Rowley’s got to do.”

The academic: Keep the police as a ‘blue light’ service and let other services take care of problems

“Defund the police” is a slogan popular in the US, where forces can often be equipped like military units. But the debate has relevance in the UK, said Goldsmiths lecturer Jennifer Fleetwood.

“The UK is quite different to the US in that budgets have been cut (in the US they have been expanding for some time, including ex-military equipment such as tanks). Public services in the UK have been underfunded since 2009, since the austerity agenda/Conservative government,” she said.

Large-scale reform requires imagining a different role for policing entirely, Fleetwood added.

“Rather than break up the Met, we would rather see the role of the police radically redefined to restrict their autonomy,” she said.

“We would propose that in most circumstances, the police are actually not best placed to deal with problems and so their role should be to ‘make safe’ so that others could move in.”

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The domestic abuse campaigner: Properly fund officers who investigate violence against women

Dr Hannana Siddiqui, the head of campaigns and policy for Southall Black Sisters, works with a number of minority women who have experienced domestic violence.

One push by her organisation has highlighted the difficulty of change for the Met. Southall Black Sisters’ firewall campaign is calling for a buffer between migrant victims reporting domestic assault and the police reporting their immigration status to the Home Office.

“A lot of the victims are frightened of going to the police in the first place. Even though they need protection from the police, they don’t go because they are frightened that they will be deported. And the perpetrator knows that,” Siddiqui said.

It was the subject of the first ever police “Super Complaint”, and led to the police inspectorate agreeing the policy caused “significant harm”.

But, three years on, the firewall is not a reality, and Southall Black Sisters’ frustration is such that Siddiqui said: “We’re actually boycotting the Home Office now”.

In terms of reform, vetting and the suspension of officers under investigation would help, Siddiqui said, as well as properly funding officers who investigate violence against women. An officer should visit every report of domestic abuse.

Siddiqui described the end goal for women reporting abuse: “Straight from the call handler to the very end of the criminal justice system, you are going to be treated well, you are going to get a sympathetic response. 

“You are going to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of your background.”

The criminal justice lawyer: Stop giving the police new powers

Tyrone Steele, a criminal justice lawyer at JUSTICE, highlighted a lack of change coming at the same time as expanded powers for police in the form of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts act, and the Public Order bill.

“The Casey Report’s revelations further evidence the unacceptable state of the Metropolitan police, which remains rife with racism, sexism, and homophobia both at the institutional and individual levels,” he said.

Almost 30 years after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, “it is unacceptable that the UK’s largest force has not made sufficient progress, and continues to lose trust among all communities”.

Highlighting the lack of progress the Met has achieved, he said: “It is therefore disappointing that, in parallel, the government has continued to push for broad new policing powers, from last year’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, to the ongoing Public Order Bill. With sexism, racism, and homophobia endemic in the country’s largest police force, it is inevitable that expanded police powers will be used to damaging and discriminatory effect.”

A root-and-branch approach to addressing these issues is needed, Steele added. 

“To start, the Casey Report rightly concludes that stop and search powers need ‘a fundamental reset’, yet the Public Order Bill is set to scale up these controversial measures,” Steele said.

“JUSTICE’s 2021 report on racial disparity urged the government to suspend the discriminatory and ineffective section 60 ‘suspicionless’ stop and search powers, which do nothing to tackle crime and instead lead to the over policing of ethnic minority individuals across the city. Today represents a chance to take action and set things right. There is no time to waste; London’s communities deserve better.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this topic? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

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