In the past, the people formerly known as bent coppers could get away with a range of malpractice from dodgy deals to rarely, unexplained deaths. It’s been nearly thirty years since a police officer has been convicted of manslaughter for crimes committed on duty, despite the fact that 1,433 people have died in custody (which includes prison) or after contact with the police since 1990.
Yesterday a different kind of malpractice was finally admitted, with the release of the Hillsborough documents after a relentless campaign by the families and the Hillsborough Independent Panel. They show a sustained conspiracy to alter evidence and to smear the Liverpool fans, and like the case of the young man racially abused in the back of a police van, the most shocking aspect is that people are so shocked.
The police appear institutionally prone to closing ranks, protecting their own and in extreme cases, reframing circumstance. Juries are notoriously reluctant to convict police officers. The consequence is that police have lost their natural legitimacy for a small but signification portion of this country. There are plenty of brilliant police officers who do their job well – but they won’t be seen as the true representatives of the force until more of the country share a comparable experience of the police, and until the good policemen and women are empowered to blow the whistle on their colleagues. None of the officers at Hillsborough whose evidence was changed reported this fact: the ‘no grassing’ law seems to apply as much to the police as it does to those at the other end of the law-breaking spectrum.
The police often work in extreme and unpredictable environments. But when things go wrong, officers and their bosses need to hold up their hands – not to change evidence, or to close ranks.
The response to the release of the Hillsborough documents has been to emphasise that the South Yorkshire Police have changed, and that the closed, duplicitous culture of 1989 is long-gone. It’s exactly the kind of historical revisionism that compounds the problem, especially given the recent reports that the Met had witheld evidence post-Tomlinson about PC Harwood’s disciplinary records.
This is a significant moment for all of us, because of the disconnect between the experience that mainstream society has of the police and the experience of say, young people in the inner cities, or football fans in the ’80s or of families whose loved ones have died after contact with the police. The former – most people – experience the police as a benevolent safety net: the people you seek out if you’re lost or if you’ve been burgled. The latter know that the police can act with impunity, and that some people end up injured or even dead in police cells – and that the relevant CCTV cameras are frequently ‘broken’.
It’s a disconnect we need to close. How can we trust the police if they can’t apply the law to themselves?