Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Where have all the ethics gone? That the police need a code on ethics is a damning indictment of modern society

Yesterday's Times carried a short piece about the anger of those whose loved ones were caught up in the Hillsborough disaster towards Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

Their anger stems from "confusion" over whether Sir Bernard - who, on the day of tragedy, was an officer at a club in Sheffield where families waited for news about fans - gave a statement to the Hillsborough inquiry carried out by Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the late Lord Chief Justice. Sir Bernard is on record as saying that he provided statements to Lord Taylor, but they do not appear in the archives of official documents published by last September's Hillsborough Independent Panel report.

Confusion all round


Sir Bernard now stands accused of making misleading statements about the inquiry into the tragedy. He himself says he was "confused" when he said that he had made a statement to Taylor inquiry.

Hillsborough's families would like the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate Sir Bernard's account and why he appears never to have made an official statement to the inquiry, despite having been an inspector in South Yorkshire police at the time of the disaster. The IPCC may well take up the baton; Sir Bernard says he will welcome any investigation they chose to undertake. For now, it would be wrong to prejudge what will come of this.

But if time will reveal the ramifications of the "confusion", the families' ire is understandable. It comes as an IPCC investigation into alleged police misconduct during and in the aftermath of Britain's worst sporting disaster continues. So much remains unresolved about police culpability at Hillsborough that fateful day; feelings cannot but run high.

All this might also explain paradoxical feelings about the Home Secretary's recent announcement that the police are to have their own code of ethics. The Times trailed this towards the end of October with a story headlined: "Officers must agree to 'respect and obey law'."

Ethics go for a bike ride

Draft Code of Ethics for policing in England and Wales
Those who gasped in astonishment at the notion that police officers were being asked to agree to respect and obey the law would only have grown more disconcerted by the story itself.

It transpired that in the wake of 'Plebgate' - the infamous incident involving the police, a politician, his bike and an unholy aftermath - the Home Secretary felt it necessary to issue the police with a new code of ethics. Its core message was exactly as per The Times' headline - that police officers would be reminded, via the code, of their duty to respect and obey the law. The College of Policing, itself a recent creation of Theresa May (who set it up in 2011 to professionalise the police force), had been tasked with drafting the code. The rationale saw professionalism invoked as the name of the game, with the College writing to its members (serving police officers) and saying it was "professionalising the service in the same way we see the General Medical Council's Standards and ethics guidance for doctors or The Bar Council's Code of Conduct of the Bar of England and Wales."

Professionalism is one thing. Having a police force that needs to be reminded of its duty to "respect and obey" the law is another. And yet to look at just three incidents in the past 25 years is to behold a police force that has a dubious relationship with its rationale.

The police are supposed to embody the rule of law. They're supposed to be peacekeepers, not law breakers. In living memory, they were also essentially benign characters, as helpful as they were authoritative. But we have seen poor behaviour by the police at Hillsborough and in its aftermath. We have seen racism – witness the death of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson Report. And now, after Plebgate, it transpires that nine out ten police officers believe the force must change.

Perhaps, then, we should be thankful to Theresa May and her innovative new ethical charter for the police. But we might ask what this says about our society. If our police need to be reminded to obey and respect the law, where have all the ethics gone?