‘It’s important that we show the public what this insidious, cancerous culture actually looks like,’ the IOPC’s regional director for London tells Dazed
Over the past few years, the British public’s trust in the police has plummeted. According to a 2021 YouGov poll, more people are unconfident than confident in police to do their job for the first time since records began, and it’s not difficult to spot the reasons for this disillusionment. From 2019 to 2022, officers have intimidated demonstrators at peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, enforced an illegal ban on climate protesters, and routinely failed survivors of abuse. At a vigil for Sarah Everard last year, police breached fundamental rights and used excessive force to break up and silence mourners in attendance, and their powers are only expanding.
These failures are all out in the open, but a new report from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) delves into the disgusting, discriminatory behaviour that has gone unchecked within the police force itself. Revolving around WhatsApp groups and other messages sent between officers, the report presents findings from an investigation – dubbed Operation Hotton – that began in 2018, sparked by an allegation that a police officer had sex with a member of public while on duty.
“Once our independent investigation started, we actually discovered that there were concerns about the culture within the team,” the IOPC’s regional director for London, Sal Naseem, tells Dazed. “And soon victims started coming forward... What we uncovered was bullying, sexual harassment, misogyny, toxic masculinity, sexism. Just all manners of discrimination.”
The content of the report is disturbing, to say the least. Messages sent between ten investigated officers, primarily based at London’s Charing Cross police station, include rape threats, blatant racism and misogyny, and ableist slurs. A vast majority of this behaviour was dismissed, the report goes on, as “banter” or misunderstood humour.
In the wake of the report, the Met police commissioner Cressida Dick has issued a statement, saying: “There is no place in the Met for the appalling behaviour displayed by Officers at Charing Cross police station. Their conduct does not represent our values and I am deeply sorry to everyone they have failed.” Unsurprisingly, however, this statement has reminded many critics of the blame-shifting and denial that occurred in the wake of Sarah Everard’s death. Naseem also rejects the notion that the problem is limited to a few individuals, saying: “These are not the actions of just a few bad apples.”
In fact, of the 14 police officers that were investigated, two were dismissed for gross misconduct, and a further eight faced a range of other disciplinary processes. “We are seeing these issues across other independent investigations and other reports that we’ve seen from the Metropolitan Police Service,” Naseem continues. “This is not just an isolated incident. This speaks to a culture where some officers think this is OK.”
Will publishing this report improve the already fragile relations between the British public and the police who are supposed to protect them? No, and it shouldn’t. Nevertheless, Naseem says: “It’s important that we surface the issues. It’s important that we show the public and other serving officers what this insidious, cancerous canteen culture actually looks like. If we don’t shine a light on it, how can the problem be properly addressed?”
In an effort to combat the police misconduct the IOPC uncovered, the organisation also includes 15 recommendations in its report, and will publish the Met’s response to these within 56 days. In the meantime, we’ve broken down the worst of the report’s findings, and what action – short of abolition – could be taken to correct the underlying culture.
We are deeply sorry to all Londoners for the reprehensible conduct of a team of officers at Charing Cross Police Station.— Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk) February 1, 2022
The Commissioner has reaffirmed her commitment to creating a service that is intolerant to bullying and discrimination.https://t.co/ccSoF0gHCDpic.twitter.com/jeQiVuJYde
RAMPANT MISOGYNY, HARASSMENT, AND TOXIC MASCULINITY
Evidence of toxic masculinity – ranging from the use of offensive language by “macho” officers, to claims of sexual harassment and domestic abuse – is rife in the WhatsApp conversations included in the IOPC report. In one exchange, an officer tells another officer that he “backhanded” his “bird”, and the second officer replies: “Grab her by the pussy.” Elsewhere, the report details messages sent by a male officer to a female officer, reading: “I would happily rape you” and “If I was single I would actually hate fuck you”.
In its recommendations, the IOPC suggests that the police force “commit publicly to a position of zero-tolerance” – though previous calls for such a statement have seemingly gone unheard – and overhauls how it deals with internal reports of harassment.
Speaking to Dazed about how this discrimination affects the Met’s relationship with young women outside the force, Naseem acknowledges that the report could cause an “understandable nervousness” about engaging with the police. “The challenge for the Met is around what they do next, and their response to our recommendations,” he adds. “What work will they do now, so that women can enjoy trust and confidence in them? That is a serious piece of work that needs to be done. There can be no shying away from that.”
BLATANT RACISM AND VENOM TOWARDS ANTI-RACIST MOVEMENTS
It comes as no surprise that the report includes derogatory remarks toward the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ+ campaigners, and climate protesters, given the draconian treatment of activists in the UK. Racial profiling and the “repeated mocking of non-Christian religions” also provides a sharp insight into the attitudes of police officers who disproportionately police Black and Asian people.
Among its recommendations, the IOPC suggests that the Met should become an explicitly anti-racist organisation, with a zero-tolerance position on racist behaviour (which you’d have hoped was already the case).
Again, Naseem points out that this discrimination will have a harmful knock-on effect regarding the Met’s relationship with the public. “The Met needs to have a culture that makes [officers] feel safe, makes them feel included,” he says. “If it doesn’t secure the trust and confidence of officers, then how can it build a bridge to repair the trust and confidence of the communities that these officers come from?”
“It’s important that we surface the issues. It’s important that we show the public and other serving officers what this insidious, cancerous canteen culture actually looks like. If we don’t shine a light on it, how can the problem be properly addressed?” – Sal Naseem
USING ‘BANTER’ AS AN EXCUSE
A recurring theme throughout the report is the dismissal of intimidating behaviour and discrimination as “friendly banter” or a well-intentioned joke. Even when this behaviour was challenged by supervisors, “banter” was accepted as a reasonable defence, and officers were allowed to get away with bullying.
Examples of the content considered “banter” by some officers include homophobic slurs, more rape threats, ableist language, and messages about dressing up as known sex offenders and a molested child. Many of these were sent in group chats containing multiple officers who allowed the behaviour to go unreported, fearing humiliation or isolation.
Recommendations from the IOPC amount to increased training on guidelines for communication, particularly on social media platforms, though it’s difficult to imagine that the officers involved didn’t already realise that their behaviour was unacceptable.
A CULTURE OF ACCEPTANCE AND INACTION
“I think what our report has shown is the severity of what this looks like, how ugly it looks,” says Naseem. “There were victims here, who came to us, who were afraid of reprisal. It took courage for them to come forward… but because of their courage we were able to make these recommendations.”
As mentioned in other sections of the report, however, many officers didn’t speak up when they witnessed discrimination or harassment. One of the WhatsApp groups, when these exchanges were happening, had 17 other officers present but, as Naseem adds: “None of them spoke out.”
“There could be a range of reasons why that’s the case, whether they didn’t feel safe to do so, whether they agreed. But, whatever the reason was, the fact remains that none spoke out, and how can that be right? Officers can’t be bystanders when they’re seeing their female colleagues suffering sexism, misogyny, harassment. Other officers can’t be bystanders when officers from different cultures and backgrounds are victims of racism and marginalisation, and bullying.”
The IOPC report recommends that the Met should take appropriate steps to understand the reasons for an officer’s failure to report or challenge improper conduct. But, once more, you’d have liked to think that these systems were already in place.