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When cops turn bad

If the political elite start using the police as an army against social dissent, it’s no surprise when some of them turn rogue, writes SOLOMON HUGHES

IN A remarkable series of stories from March until now, Tom Harper at the Independent exposed a secret Metropolitan Police report admitting widespread corruption in Britain’s largest force.

The 2002 intelligence report, codenamed Operation Tiberius and produced by a team under former Met assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, says: “Organised crime is currently able to infiltrate the Metropolitan Police Service at will.” 

According to Harper’s stories, the report is backed up by 260 crates of evidence showing big-name, big-money criminal gangs were involved in “endemic corruption” at the Met, recruiting officers with five-figure sums and — in an old-school touch — through mutual membership of the Freemasons. 

Corrupt officers helped to thwart investigations against criminals, fit up the wrong men for their crimes and even helped gangsters to target their enemies.

Harper’s stories haven’t been picked up by many other newspapers, for good reasons and bad. 

The good reason is that it is hard to report on a document journalists haven’t seen, and only the Independent has the leaked copy of Operation Tiberius. 

The bad reason is newspapers don’t like to admit their rivals have a scoop, so they sometimes ignore an important story. 

I haven’t seen the Tiberius papers, so I can’t tell you more than to look at the Independent website. 

But I do want to highlight a link between police corruption and what the Tories did with the police from the 1980s onward.

It seems particularly shocking for the police, who are charged with stopping crime, to be involved in crime. 

But, in fairness to the boys in blue, they do face bigger risks of being corrupted because they are always mixing with criminals. Crime squads and police investigative units deal, by definition, with criminals who are manipulative, exploitative and who sometimes have a lot of money. Officers also have a lot of power worth being corrupted for. 

So “bent coppers” are always a risk. That risk, however, arguably increased after 1979. 

Straightforward corruption wasn’t dealt with because of a belief in something called — oxymoronically, or perhaps plain moronically — “noble-cause corruption.”

There were serious attempts to root out police corruption in the 1970s. Met Police commissioner Sir Robert Mark sacked a swathe of bent detectives in the early 1970s. 

In 1978 Labour home secretary Merlyn Rees helped to launch Operation Countryman, where officers from Dorset and Hampshire investigated corruption at the Met. 

The “rural” officers, nicknamed the “Sweedy,” looked into bent coppers at “the Sweeney.” 

Countryman wasn’t entirely successful, but it did disrupt the corrupt coppers.

However, from 1979 onwards the Thatcher government had new plans for the police. 

Because they uphold “law and order,” officers have an inherent tendency to back the established order, to police for the Establishment. 

But Thatcher’s government was shifting how that Establishment ran the country. The Tories were well aware that attacking the unions and cutting social spending would lead to conflict. 

They wanted the police to meet that conflict directly. They wanted to shift the balance from justice to force. 

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the Home Office pushed the police towards road blocks and baton charges in strikes, using the Warrington print works dispute as a test bed. 

Throughout the late ’70s and ’80s the Tories equipped and encouraged the police to deal in a similar way with the big demonstrations, riots and strikes thrown up by Conservative economic policy. 

The police were encouraged to view strikers, protesters, black, Asian and Irish people, football fans, even “ravers” and free festival travellers, as the enemy. 

These aggressive tactics involved a lot of bent policing — with notebooks and statements altered to cover up misbehaviour at Hillsborough, Orgreave and hundreds of other confrontations. 

Making the police into the front line in some kind of social war meant bending the rules all the time. 

So it became harder to stop coppers bending the rules for cash.

The new, aggressive policing threw up many injustices. There were tough campaigns to deal with these police crimes, campaigns that, after a hard fight, were often successful — the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Tottenham Three, Cardiff Three and many other “defence” campaigns exposed police injustice and freed prisoners. 

But even though these campaigns exposed the faked evidence, fit-ups and false statements in a series of unsound convictions, the police and the Home Office treated the campaigners as the enemy. 

There was less chance of exposing similar fit-ups, false statements and the like used by officers who were bribed by criminals when the authorities were so resistant to dealing with the same techniques used by unbribed officers. 

The Home Office and chief constables were not looking at fighting crime, they were looking at the police like an army in a battle. Consequently they were not rooting out corruption. 

It is noticeable that the few cases where widespread corruption was at least partly dealt with — like the disbandment of the West Midlands serious crime squad in 1989 or the break-up of a ring of criminal officers in Stoke Newington in the 1990s — were related in some way to popular justice campaigns.

Met Police commissioner from 1992-2000 Paul Condon showed the post-Thatcher link between policing as social conflict and police corruption. 

In 1993 he introduced the concept of “noble-cause corruption.” He said many officers were embroidering evidence, faking notes and threatening beatings, but doing so to catch criminals, not take bribes. 

They were “bent for the job” not “bent on the job.” He didn’t approve, but he did sympathise. But you can’t really separate the two. The corruption destroys the “noble cause.” If you can’t stop the police breaking the rules, you open the door to the gangster and the backhander.

Condon made the link more explicit in 1995 when he said, after the success of some of the big justice campaigns that “street cops” were losing “confidence” in the system and this would mean more “noble-cause corruption.” 

Condon was more or less threatening more corruption unless his officers were able to railroad people into jail. 

Instead of welcoming the way the justice campaigns had exposed police failure, Condon was threatening more bad behaviour by cops.

Unpicking Thatcherite policing will take strong political will — perhaps more than is available on either Labour or Tory front benches. 

But if this doesn’t happen, we can also expect to see more corruption. If the police are used as an army in a social battle rather than a force for justice, it isn’t surprising if some officers start acting like pirates.

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