The acting head of the UK’s biggest police force has admitted that cultural problems in the force are “not a few bad apples” and called for a change in procedures to allow managers to speedily sack errant officers.
Sir Stephen House, who has temporarily taken over as commissioner of the Metropolitan police, also disclosed that there had been a lack of supervision in the police unit where Sarah Everard’s murderer served.
The Met has been accused of failing to uncover scandals including the murder of Everard by the serving officer Wayne Couzens, offensive messages exchanged by a team at Charing Cross and the strip-search of a teenage girl at school while she was menstruating.
In his first appearance before the home affairs select committee, House said a “significant campaign” has been launched to root out “subcultures” of racism and sexism.
He said: “There is a significant campaign within the organisation to deal with this completely unacceptable behaviour, to root it out and to exit those people who are exhibiting that behaviour from the organisation as fast as possible and in the right way.”
Asked if it was “just a few people”, he replied: “People have talked about a few bad apples, quite clearly that’s not the situation at all, it’s not a few bad apples.
“You can’t simply say that Wayne Couzens and a couple of other people have done something wrong – that’s been the spearhead of the problem, I would suggest, but there is a wider issue within the organisation which we acknowledge and we are dealing with.”
Inquiries identified a lack of supervision in the parliamentary and diplomatic protection unit where Couzens served when he carried out his crimes, House said.
Racist and sexist social media postings by members of the unit, which guards the Houses of Parliament and VIPs, were disclosed last month.
One sent an edited picture showed George Floyd in his final moments, alongside the caption “Pink Floyd”.
Another doctored photo featured the critically injured BLM activist Sasha Johnson, in a T-shirt that read ‘Black Lives Splatter”.
House said officers had launched a root-and-branch inquiry into the unit’s culture and realised that supervising officers had little to do with the rank and file.
“Supervisors can set tone and set attitudes and deal with very low level poor behaviour early on. We find in our review of parliamentary and diplomatic protection that the supervisory levels are too low. That the mode of working is they don’t see their supervisors enough and the supervisors don’t know the officers well enough simply because there aren’t enough of them,” he said.
MPs were told officers who were consistently rude to the public or targeted people for stop and search on the grounds of their race should be rooted out “as fast as possible”.
Questioned by Tim Loughton, the Conservative veteran committee member, House said senior officers were sometimes prevented from sacking colleagues for misconduct immediately because of lengthy criminal inquiries.
“One of the classic problems for us is an officer who has carried out an action which is misconduct but looks as if it may also be criminal which will then get referred to the CPS,” he said.
“Investigations can go on in parallel, sometimes it is easier if the criminal investigation goes first. There are times when probably out of frustration I think to myself ‘I’d rather sack this person now rather than wait 18 months for them to go to court, possibly get found not guilty and then we have to go through a misconduct process’..”
House said in less serious criminal cases, it would be better for public trust and the public purse if the Met’s misconduct procedures could take precedence. “We would get rid of them quickly and justice would be seen to be done,” he said.
Police forces in England and Wales are trying to recruit 20,000 officers by next year to replace jobs cut during austerity measures.
House said he was now “less confident” that the Met would meet its targets, with the force needing to attract 40,000 applicants in the next year to replace officers who leave as well as attracting 1,800 new starters.
He said: “We need to recruit just over 4,000 officers in the next 12 months. That means we need around about 40,000 applications in the next 12 months because we take roughly one in 10 of the people who apply to us.”