Is Cressida Dick the problem – or is it the Met itself?

Two words have dominated the debate about policing in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder: trust and consent.

Britain’s police forces maintain law and order because they have the consent of the public to do so. In turn, that consent relies completely on the public’s trust in the institution, its leaders and individual officers. Without trust, there can be no consent. Without consent, policing becomes impossible.

Dame Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the country’s most senior officer, is now all too aware that under her watch trust has been eroded, and that consent could quickly go the same way.

It was, of course, because Sarah Everard trusted the police that she consented to get into Wayne Couzens’s car. From now on, officers can expect to be routinely challenged by members of the public who will demand to speak to their superiors before they are even prepared to believe they are who they say they are.

The mere fact that Dame Cressida grasps this, however – as she demonstrated when she said “a precious bond of trust has been damaged” – does not guarantee that she is the right woman to fix it.

Whether she survives in the job – a question which remains in the balance this weekend – will depend on how politicians weigh the blame for the current crisis. Is it because the Met itself is flawed, unwieldy, perhaps even unleadable, or is it Dame Cressida who is the root of the problem?

For now, she retains the support of the Home Secretary, but Priti Patel knows that Dame Cressida is standing on the precipice. Asked whether she had full confidence in her, she would only say the force had “questions to answer”.

One senior policing source summed up the dilemma facing those who might wish to replace her, saying: “Cressida is a Met lifer. She joined up almost 40 years ago and has been through the ranks. From one point of view that is great because she is hugely respected among her colleagues. But it does beg the question, is she the right person to drive through change? Is she not institutionalised?

“If this was a company that had a cultural problem you would bring in an outsider with fresh ideas, but you cannot do that in policing, because a chief officer needs to have the experience in order to do the job. Replacing her with another senior officer with 30 odd years in policing is not really going to address the fundamental cultural problem.”

It is supremely ironic that Dame Cressida, the first woman (and the first openly gay person) to lead the Met in its 192 years is the commissioner who has presided over a failure to get to grips with crimes against women, and misogyny within the force.

Long before the rape and murder of Sarah Everard made the problem headline news, there were complaints that crimes against women were being left towards the bottom of the pile when it came to prioritising resources.

There are even some in the Met who think Dame Cressida’s gender may actually have impeded improvement.

“She has never really played the female card,” said one senior source. “She has handled the locker-room banter and she is highly respected exactly because she got there on her own terms, competing with men on a level playing field at a time when there was a very macho culture.”

When it comes to the specific issues thrown up by Sarah Everard’s murder, Dame Cressida faces two specific challenges: rooting out misogyny within the Met and revamping the force’s handling of sexual violence against women and girls.

The former carries potentially catastrophic risks for the Commissioner. “If it becomes clear that the attitudes and culture is systemic, then it becomes exceedingly difficult for a Commissioner who has been there for five years,” said one former senior Metropolitan police officer.

Some believe Dame Cressida is too ingrained in the Met’s culture to change it.

Protestors in Parliament Square, the day after clashes between police and crowds at Sarah Everard's vigil

Credit: PA

“The Met has always had this attitude that we do not have to do things in the same way as everyone else because we are too big and special,” says Steve White, former chair of the Police Federation, which represents frontline officers. 

“That culture exists in every single rank and that is what has to change. Chief constables are as ingrained as anyone in this culture and Cressida Dick is no exception. One of the reasons she was chosen as Commissioner was that she had the backing of the troops. She was never really going to change the culture and she was never brought in to do that.”

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and publicly available data show that, in 31 misconduct hearings between 2017 and 2020, 41 of the Met police officers who were subject to disciplinary proceedings for sexual misconduct retained their roles following the decision. 

More than half of Met police officers found to have committed sexual misconduct also stayed in post: a total of 43 officers out of 83 or 52 per cent. And 771 Met employees have faced sexual misconduct allegations in the past 11 years, with just 83 of them sacked.

Lord Stevens, the former Met Commissioner who was tasked with pushing through the Macpherson Report’s recommendations following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, knows what it takes to effect cultural change within the Met. He says it is vital for Dame Cressida to take “ownership” of the problem and then come up with a clear strategy to tackle it.

“When we were working out how to drive through change following the Macpherson report, we took advice from a lot of people, including eminent industrialists as to how to get the message across. But they stressed that the message had to come from me,” he says.

“We held a series of large town hall meetings with two to three thousand officers and we addressed them and allowed them to ask any questions they wanted. At times it was very uncomfortable. We explained that we were going to go ahead and implement all the Macpherson recommendations and we wanted the force to come with us. The message was ‘come with us or go elsewhere’. It was a difficult message but absolutely necessary.”

Lord Stevens says he even used undercover officers to monitor the behaviour of colleagues in order to find out whether his message was getting through.

Claire Waxman, Victims’ Commissioner for London, says: “There needs to be zero tolerance to misogyny and sexism. It is for the Met Commissioner to show leadership and show what she is going to do to make serious changes to her organisation moving forward.

“The contract between the Met and the public is broken. It has to work extremely hard to restore that trust and confidence that has understandably been lost. We need to see a clear plan from the Met that tells us what they are going to do to rebuild that trust and confidence.”

It was because Sarah Everard trusted the police that she got into Wayne Couzen's car

Credit: Nicholas Razzell

Zoe Billingham, who was until this week one of the country’s five inspectors of constabulary, is not alone in describing the murder of Sarah Everard as a “watershed” moment for policing, in which “there is an opportunity and possibility of doing something that really causes a significant change, but only if big bold and radical decisions are made”.

Only one in 20 rape allegations in London leads to a suspect being charged. Reports of sexual offences other than rape fare little better, with only 6,883 of the 56,933 allegations between May 2016 and February 2021 being solved, according to the Met’s own figures.

There has also been a 42 per cent fall in the number of prosecutions in the capital for domestic violence, according to Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) figures.

Billingham says the number of women withdrawing from prosecutions was partly down to the way police often investigated sexual offences and violence against women.

“We’re still getting a sense from the many women we talked to that there is a pushing back of responsibility and decision-making by police onto women in a way that you wouldn’t see in respect of other crimes. You would never expect a police officer at the scene of a burglary to ask the victims: ‘Are you sure you want us to try to apprehend the perpetrator and bring them to justice?’ 

“But we know those sorts of questions are asked when there’s domestic abuse. Do you want him arrested? Are you sure you want us to press charges? 

“Police officers have got very special powers and responsibilities. They should be taking these offences forward rather than pushing it back to the victims.”

Notwithstanding any reluctance to be pigeonholed, Dame Cressida came into the job believing that counter-terrorism, knife crime and the Met’s relationship with ethnic minorities would be her biggest challenges.

People gather to pay their respects to Jean Charles de Menezes, who was mistakenly shot by the police

Credit: Clare Kendall Commission

The daughter of two Oxford academics, Dame Cressida, 60, joined the Met in 1983 after graduating from Oxford University with a degree in agriculture and forest sciences and briefly working for an accountancy firm. Apart from a six-year spell at Thames Valley Police, she has spent her entire career at the Met, where her most senior roles have involved counter-terrorism (she was, infamously, the gold commander in the operation that resulted in the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was mistakenly identified as a suicide bomber in 2005), security for the London 2012 Olympics, and gang crime.

She has had notable successes in top-priority policing, but has perhaps failed to respond to the fact that most people’s personal experience of the police comes from their reaction to the low-level crimes which are suffered by the vast majority of victims, such as burglary, theft and anti-social behaviour. The public’s trust in the police to investigate and detect such crimes is now gossamer-thin, to the extent that citizens are increasingly investigating crimes themselves, using neighbourhood watch apps and private CCTV cameras to identify and confront culprits. Sometimes they are even encouraged by the police to do so.

HM Inspector of Constabulary is so concerned about police forces leaving it to the public to solve their own crimes that it has warned some offences are “on the verge of being decriminalised” in certain areas.

Wayne Couzens’ false arrest of Sarah Everard, and her subsequent death at his hands, may have been the ultimate breach of trust between the public and the police, but it is the constant, daily, humdrum incompetence of some officers, and indifference to certain crimes, that has chipped away at the overall trust on which policing is founded.

Meanwhile the Met has expended vast amounts of money and manpower on inquiries such as Operation Midland, the two-year probe into a VIP paedophile ring that was the invention of a fantasist, and Operation Weeting, the investigation into phone-hacking by tabloid journalists.

Carl Beech, a fantasist and paedophile now serving 18 years in jail, who sparked a £2m police inquiry into his false claims

Credit: CPS/PA Wire

The divergence between the police’s priorities and the public’s priorities can be laid, at least in part, at Dame Cressida’s door.

Allies admit Dame Cressida can be “dismissive” of criticism, and one senior officer admitted the force may not have given crimes against women the priority they merited as Scotland Yard targeted resources on combating record levels of knife crime with aggressive stop and search tactics that Dame Cressida very publicly championed.

As we now know, Couzens could have been stopped in his tracks if police had responded swiftly to a complaint of a man exposing himself at a drive-through McDonald’s restaurant 72 hours before Sarah Everard’s abduction; although the car was identified through CCTV, officers did not get round to tracing and questioning its owner before he had used the same vehicle to rape Sarah and dispose of her body.

Kent Police made an almost identical mistake six years earlier, when Couzens was identified as the owner of a car whose driver had indecently exposed himself. Instead of tracking him down, the force decided it merited “no further action”, a decision which also allowed Couzens to pass the vetting process when he later joined the Met.

It is fair to question whether the job of Metropolitan Police Commissioner is simply too big for any one person, and whether it is the structure of the 43,000-strong organisation that needs to change.

Yet it was Dame Cressida herself who presided over one of the biggest restructuring exercises in recent decades, despite warnings that it would impact on the force’s ability to tackle low-level offences. In 2018, a year after she started the job as Commissioner, Dame Cressida merged the Met’s 32 boroughs into 12 much larger Basic Command Units. The move was driven by budget constraints and the Met insisted it would allow the force to better deal with large-scale incidents. Critics warned at the time that it would erode the connection between officers and the local communities they policed and that it was “gambling with Londoners’ safety”.

The Metropolitan Police in numbers

Dame Cressida’s response to the crisis has been to appoint two highly-regarded senior women officers to transform the force’s approach to rape and domestic abuse. Louisa Rolfe, who has led for the National Police Chiefs’ Council on domestic abuse, has been poached from the West Midlands to be an assistant commissioner in the Met. “She is fully aware of what is needed,” said an ally.

“They are starting to look at how to improve their response to domestic abuse, to improve charging rates, prosecution rates. Domestic abuse matters, a training scheme is being rolled out to help identify abuse patterns and how perpetrators work.”

As Scotland Yard’s lead officer for rape and sexual offences, detective superintendent Mel Laremore is introducing a new approach to investigating crime. Project Bluestone is a Government-backed approach that focuses more on suspects’ patterns of behaviour before, during and after reported attacks.

It has been successfully pioneered in Avon and Somerset and will shift the spotlight from investigating the credibility of victims, which has been blamed for an increase in the numbers withdrawing from cases and falling conviction rates.

There is no doubt that Dame Cressida wants to be given the chance to turn things around in her own force. Colleagues say she would not have agreed to the two-year extension to her contract handed to her last month by the Home Secretary if she was not up for the challenge. She would, after all, have been well aware of the police blunders around the Sarah Everard case that were about to become public knowledge.

Priti Patel, too, knew what was coming, which is why she has resisted calls to sack Dame Cressida. She has survived previous scandals – which also include the alleged institutional corruption over the murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan and criticism over the heavy-handed policing of the Sarah Everard vigil – because she “has the backs” of her officers whom she has defended, according to senior and junior officers.

“She is very resilient and a very talented individual. She is not someone who will fold. She is very strong,” said one former police chief who worked alongside her.

The truth is that the decision to extend Dame Cressida’s contract was largely forced on the Home Secretary because there is no obvious candidate who is yet ready to succeed her.

Patel has indicated that she would like the next leader of the Met to be an outsider and someone who is not steeped in the force’s culture and can tackle the crimes that truly matter to the public. She has so far been unable to identify anyone among the large regional forces who would be ready to step up to the most challenging job in British policing. 

If there are any more failings by the Met exposed in the coming days, it might be that she has to think again.

A brief history of women in the Met

By Alice Hall

1919

February 17 saw the first Met Police women patrols. Just 25 pioneering women joined the force, and were vetted against strict criteria. Female officers were required to be between the ages of 25-38, physically fit, literate, have no dependant children and be no shorter than 5’4”. They were paid 30 shillings a week (men got 53) and their powers of arrest only extended to women and children, not men. Their uniforms were from Harrods, although on their first patrol they had to wear their own clothes, as the delivery hadn’t arrived. “They had round domed helmets, long skirts and high collars. The biggest complaint was about the boots – they were so uncomfortable,” says Jennifer Rees, a retired Met police officer and author of Voices from the Blue (100 Years of Women in the Met).

1923

Four years later, 50 female officers were re-sworn, this time with full powers of arrest under the leadership of Inspector Betha Clayden. But they were restricted by their marital status. A general order issued in 1927 stated that female officers had to resign if they chose to wed, although those who were already married before the order came into place were allowed to stay. The decision wasn’t reversed until 1946.

1937

Female officers were authorised to take fingerprints in 1937, and allowed to take part in the 1946 VE Day parade. In 1941, Herbert Morrison, then Home Secretary, remarked: “It is true that police duty is, for the most part, a man’s job, but such work as driving cars, typewriting and attending the telephone can be done by carefully selected women. There is no reason why canteen duties should not be taken over entirely by women.”

1954

Female officers were allowed to wear nylons, instead of woollen stockings.

Sislin Fay Allen during police training

Credit:
Gamma-Keystone

1968

The appointment of the first black female police officer, Sislin Fay Allen, made 1968 a landmark year for women in the Met. “On the day I joined I nearly broke a leg trying to run away from reporters. I realised then that I was a history maker. But I didn’t set out to make history; I just wanted a change of direction,” she said. This was also the year in which the Queen’s dressmaker, Norman Hartnell, designed a new uniform for female officers. One told Hartnell that she “felt like a French railway porter and didn’t like having to hoist my skirt when I had to run.” Women in the Met weren’t allowed to wear trousers, except on winter nights, until the late 1980s. 

1973

Male and female officers were integrated and given equal opportunities, meaning the jobs traditionally seen as “women’s tasks” – such as writing reports – suffered, says Rees, as their male colleagues were reluctant to pick them up. In 1974, equal pay was brought in.

1979

Nicola Grey was hired as the Met’s first female dog handler. Before this, women weren’t permitted to hold the role since the outdated rules stated that an officer should have a wife who could look after a puppy, while he went to work. 

1984

On April 17, PC Yvonne Fletcher sadly became the first female Met police officer to be murdered, aged 25, outside the Libyan Embassy in central London. The first female Met police officer to die in service was Margaret Gleghorn, who was killed by a flying bomb while on duty at Tottenham Court in 1944. 

1986

Much of the stigma surrounding female police officers stemmed from the belief that they were weaker, and more vulnerable, than men. Despite this, they were only armed with truncheons in 1986, which were shorter than those carried by male officers. This was to ensure they didn’t ruin the lines of female officers’ uniforms, and that they were small enough to slot into a handbag. 

1999

The term WPC (Woman Police Constable) was dropped and all officers were referred to as Police Constable. 

2017

In April 2017, Cressida Dick became the first woman to take charge of London’s police force in its 188-year history. In 2019, just 28 per cent of officers in the Met were women, which Dick acknowledged was “still not enough”.

 

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