Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse for the police after the Hillsborough cover-up allegations and the Plebgate row, it just has. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has just told MPs about the shocking findings of an inquiry into how they dealt with the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence murder 20 years ago.
We know they handled the investigation incompetently because the Macpherson inquiry told us so and they failed for a long time to bring anyone to justice for the killing. Macpherson said their investigations were hampered by “institutional racism”. Not until 2012 were Gary Dobson and David Norris found guilty of murdering Stephen and jailed.
Recently, however, it has further been alleged that the Met also tried to cover up their mistakes both by seeking to besmirch the Lawrence family and by getting rid of evidence. A review by Mark Ellison QC found that a police undercover officer attached to the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) was working within the Lawrence family camp during the course of the Macpherson inquiry but this had been kept secret.
Undercover officers were deployed by the SDS into activist groups that then sought to attach themselves to the Lawrence’s family’s campaign to challenge the adequacy of the investigation into Stephen’s murder.
Mr Ellison said: “The mere presence of an undercover Metropolitan Police officer in the wider Lawrence family camp in such circumstances is highly questionable in terms of the appearance it creates of the MPS having a spy in the family’s camp.”
Mrs May said the review was “deeply troubling” and has now ordered another judge-led public inquiry into the activities of the SDS, a Special Branch unit wound up in 2008. Ellison’s review said there is evidence to suspect one of the detectives on the original Stephen Lawrence murder investigation acted corruptly.
But do we need yet another judicial inquiry? Ellison himself concluded that a public inquiry would have “limited” potential to uncover further evidence regarding corruption in the original murder investigations. Since the SDS no longer exists examining its role will be of hisorical interest, though many will say there are lessons for current policing to be learnt.
On the other hand if there is evidence that would stand up in court why not put any officer suspected of an offence on trial? Mrs May says she proposes to introduce a new offence of “police corruption” because it was untenable to rely on the outdated offence of misconduct in public office in such cases. But it is hard to believe there are not already laws against such behaviour that could be used.
As with Hillsborough, many of the allegations made against the police and initially dismissed appear to have more than a semblance of veracity. At every turn the reputation of the police is taking a hammering, which must be frustrating for the majority of officers who do their duty every day.
The Macpherson inquiry left a legacy that the Met has found hard to shake off, even though its culture has been transformed since. It is hard to see what another judicial inquiry will achieve.
By Philip Johnston Politics Last updated: March 6th, 2014
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