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London Met Police Corruption Essays

Imagine you lived in a country which last year had 3,000 allegations of police corruption. Worse, imagine that of these 3,000 allegations only half of them were properly investigated — because for police officers in this country, corruption was becoming routine. Imagine that the police increasingly used their powers to crack down not on criminals but on anyone who dared speak out against them. What sort of a country is this? Well, it’s Britain I’m afraid — where what was once the finest, most honest service in the world is in danger of becoming rotten.

Some of this was revealed in a little-noticed report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, which went on to deliver some even more shocking news. Nearly half of 17,200 officers and staff surveyed said that if they discovered corruption among their colleagues and chose to report it, they didn’t believe their evidence would be treated in confidence and would fear ‘adverse consequences’. This appalling lack of protection for whistle-blowers — often amounting to persecution — has become commonplace throughout the public services and creates a climate in which dishonesty and malpractice flourish.

The second report, compiled by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, bears this out. It says there has been a sharp increase over the past five years in the number of police officers dealing heroin, cocaine and amphetamines and an equally startling rise in the number of officers abusing their power ‘for sexual gratification’ — in other words bullying or cajoling suspects, witnesses and even victims into having sex with them.

Just this week, in fact, it emerged that the Met suspended 73 coppers, community support officers and other staff on corruption charges in the past two years. They cited drug crimes, bribery, theft, fraud, sexual misconduct and — everybody’s favourite — un-authorised disclosure of information. Eleven were convicted in court, but what happened to the others? The Met spokesman said rather blandly that some were allowed to resign or retire (presumably with full pension rights) and some were dismissed.

This rise in corruption and the apparent reluctance of police chiefs to fight it is a toxic combination. As ever, chief constables blame lack of resources for not being able to pursue inquiries into claims of malpractice. But what could be a greater priority than ensuring that their own officers are not breaking the law? These same police chiefs seem to find endless funds to pursue ancient sex abuse allegations, chase people who say unpleasant things on Twitter and prosecute journalists.

The vast majority of Britain’s police do a sometimes extremely arduous job with honesty, skill and good humour. But corruption left unchecked can infect entire forces. Anyone who doubts this need only study the lessons of the not-too-distant past.

Forty-five years ago the Times splashed across its front page a sensational story that led ultimately to what became known as ‘The Fall of Scotland Yard’. Under the headline ‘London policemen in bribe allegations’, it revealed a tale

The story, backed by taped conversations, bluntly accused three Yard detectives of planting evidence and taking back-handers from criminals ‘in exchange for dropping charges, being lenient with evidence in court, and for allowing a criminal to work unhindered’. If it had been just those three rogue officers, the story might quickly have been forgotten. But the tapes hinted at a far more endemic culture of graft and criminality.of corruption that came as a profound shock to a nation accustomed to seeing its constabulary through the prism of Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars. A leading criminal lawyer of the time remarked: ‘It was like catching the Archbishop of Canterbury in bed with a prostitute.’

Over the next few years, the Obscene Publications Squad was exposed as a tawdry protection racket extracting regular tithes from pornographers and Soho club-owners; drugs squad officers were shown to be running illegal cannabis deals; and half the Flying Squad was in the pay of criminals. These were not the clandestine activities of a few low-ranking detectives on the take. Whole squads were involved and the seniority of some of those taken down at the Old Bailey was shocking. In the words of trial judge Mr Justice Mars-Jones, it was ‘corruption on a scale that beggars description’.

The exposures of these corruption rackets had one thing in common — they were all revealed in the first place by the efforts of Britain’s free press. But these journalists could not have achieved all they did without the help of whistleblowers. Some of these were pornographers and criminals tired of being milked and intimidated, but others were rank and file police officers disgusted by the greed and criminality of so many of their peers.

The tragedy is that 40 years on, honest policemen in a similar position would fear arrest and imprisonment for even approaching a journalist without permission, despite the clear public interest in their doing so.

The police appear to be retreating into a bunker of secrecy and paranoia where all news must be ‘managed’ and freedom of information is considered a threat. On its website — alongside some vacuous rubbish about ‘declaring total war on crime’ — the Met claims to be committed to carrying out its duties with ‘humility’ and ‘transparency’.

Could anything be further from the truth? With its constant leak inquiries, harassment of whistleblowers and journalists, and scandalous misuse of terror legislation to tap the phone records and emails of ordinary citizens, the Met is probably more authoritarian and opaque than at any time in modern history. This culture comes directly from the top.

Being Commissioner of the Met has long been the most difficult job in policing, but there have been some good ones. Robert Mark, the Normandy veteran who cleaned out the Yard’s Augean stables in the 1970s; Ken Newman, a steely, austere man who served in Palestine during the emergency and headed the Royal Ulster Constabulary before re-organising the Met into a modern force; and the thoughtful Paul Condon, whose tenure came to a turbulent end with the Stephen Lawrence inquiry but who was arguably the cleverest of the lot. Each had his strengths and weaknesses but they all knew that a free, well-informed press was a cornerstone of policing in a democracy. Informal contact was generally encouraged, and in more than ten years as a crime correspondent in the 1980s and 1990s, I don’t recall a single leak inquiry or junior officer being disciplined for passing information to newspapers in good faith.

These men had respect for the office of constable — not least because they had all spent years on the front line before rising through the ranks. And they believed that part of their duty of accountability was to keep the public properly informed of what they were doing and why.

The present generation of police chiefs come from a very different breed. Fast-tracked and homogenised from an early stage, they can be difficult to tell apart. Often laden with degrees in law, business and ‘criminology’ accumulated during their police careers, they are more managers than police officers — managers of budgets, managers of public relations and, most importantly, managers of risk to their own careers. They speak in the obscure, vapid jargon of stakeholder engagement, paradigm shifts and proactivity. So much for transparency.

The present Met chief, Bernard Hogan-Howe, is of this ilk. He may develop into a great commissioner but the signs so far have not been promising. He has a pet theory which he calls ‘total policing’ (apparently based on the ‘total football’ played by Holland in the 1970s). It’s mainly harmless drivel about coppers having to play in all positions. But it contains an extremely sinister subtext. Explaining the philosophy a few years ago, he said it meant that ‘no legal tactic is out of bounds’ in the investigation of crime. Reasonable enough, one might think at first glance, but the problem with this catchy little mantra is that it takes no account of proportionality.

One of Hogan-Howe’s first moves after arriving at the Met was to use the Official Secrets Act to try to compel a Guardian journalist to reveal the source of a story about celebrity phone hacking. The Official Secrets Act is meant principally to be used to trap spies, traitors and those who threaten the defence of the realm — not reporters going about their legitimate business. This was a disproportionate and oppressive use of the law.

Similarly, legislation designed to combat terrorism and serious crime, such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, is used with alarming frequency by Hogan-Howe and other police chiefs to snoop on the internet and phone records of law-abiding citizens. This is the tactic of the police state. Not so much total policing as totalitarian policing.

Naturally, the ‘total policeman’ also favours more armed officers on routine duties, more Tasers and the mainland deployment of water cannon to disperse rioters, despite the fact that its use in Northern Ireland tended to inflame tensions rather than cool them. He also favours police officers being taken off the electoral roll and not wearing their uniforms on the way to and from duty shifts.The rise in Islamist terrorism has increased the threat level for soldiers and the police and sensible measures must be taken to combat that. But just as great a threat was posed over 30 years by the Provisional IRA and its offshoots without panic reactions. Hogan-Howe appears to be taking the police away from being a service and back towards being a coercive force. This is starkly demonstrated by the pursuit of journalists in the wake of the baleful Leveson inquiry. It has been driven to the point of absurdity, with up to 200 officers involved at one time and dozens of hapless hacks put before the courts, some on the flimsiest of charges.

All this has wider implications for the integrity of the police. One of the consequences of a heavy-handed police leadership stretching the law and using their power to bully and intimidate is that rank and file officers are encouraged to think they can do the same. Once ordinary officers start abusing power, a culture of semi-criminal behaviour becomes normal and whistleblowers are treated not as honourable but as traitors.

Judging from the recent reports, this may already be happening to an alarming degree around the country. The lessons of history suggest that if police chiefs are serious about neutralising the threat of corruption, they will need the help and support of the press. They will only get it if they start talking to journalists — instead of looking for reasons to arrest them.

Neil Darbyshire is an assistant editor at the Daily Mail. He is a former deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, where he was crime correspondent for many years.

How Suspects were Apprehended

The period from 1674 to 1913 witnessed the transformation of policing in London from a system that relied on private individuals and part-time officials, through the development of salaried officials and semi-official "thief-takers", to a modern professional police system. In the process the mechanisms by which the people tried at the Old Bailey were identified and apprehended was radically transformed, and ultimately brought under the control of the state.

Contents of this Article

The Role of Private Individuals Before the Police

William Hogarth, 'The Four Stages of Cruelty', plate 3, 'Cruelty in Perfection' (1751). � Tim Hitchcock

Throughout the period 1674 to 1829 many victims of crime were able to identify and apprehend the culprits before contacting a constable or a justice of the peace to secure their arrest. Those who witnessed a felony were legally obliged to apprehend those responsible for the crime, and to notify a constable or justice of the peace if they heard that a crime had taken place. Moreover, if summoned by a constable to join the "hue and cry", inhabitants were required to join in the pursuit of any suspected felon.

Although these legal obligations were rarely enforced, Londoners continued to help apprehend suspected criminals. As the Proceedings frequently illustrate, cries of "stop thief!" or "murder!" from victims often successfully elicited the assistance of passers-by. This sense of individual responsibility for law enforcement was eroded over the eighteenth century, however, as increasing numbers of men were paid to carry out this task. For example, victims frequently paid thief-takers to locate and apprehend suspects. Moreover, the difficulties the authorities had in identifying and apprehending criminals led them to offer rewards to those whose arrests led to the conviction of serious criminals, and pardons to accomplices who were willing to turn in their confederates. Increasingly, ordinary Londoners left the task of securing criminals to people who were motivated to do so by the prospect of financial or other rewards.

Constables and the Night Watch

Constables were required to apprehend anyone accused of a felony, and bring them before a justice of the peace. They also had a general responsibility to keep the peace, but there was no expectation that they should investigate or prosecute crimes. Night watchmen patrolled the streets between 9 or 10 pm until sunrise, and were expected to examine all suspicious characters. In the City of London, daytime patrols were conducted by the City Marshall and the beadles. Like the night watch, their primary responsibilities were to apprehend minor offenders and to act as a deterrent against more serious offences. Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, the arrangements by which men served as constables and watchmen changed significantly, in ways which altered how felons were detected and apprehended.

'Watch House, Covent Garden', c.1835. � Museum of London

Traditionally, householders served in the office of constable by appointment or rotation. During their year of office they performed their duties part-time alongside their normal employment. Similarly, householders were expected to serve by rotation on the nightly watch. From the late seventeenth century, however, many householders avoided these obligations by hiring deputies to serve in their place. As this practice increased, some men were able to make a living out of acting as deputy constables or as paid night watchmen. In the case of the watch, this procedure was formalised in many parts of London by the passage of "Watch Acts", which replaced householders' duty of service by a tax levied specifically for the purpose of hiring full-time watchmen. Some voluntary prosecution societies also hired men to patrol their areas.

The advent of salaried constables and watchmen meant that several characteristics of a modern police force were already present in eighteenth-century London. The streets were regularly patrolled by men whose job it was to prevent crime and arrest suspects. These men walked regular beats, and some wore uniforms. The evidence from the Proceedings suggests that men employed in these roles increasingly spoke self-consciously in terms of their “duty”. While they were more experienced than the part-time householders they replaced, because they were low paid and the job was of a low status, they were not necessarily more respected or more effective. Indeed, there were concerns that some paid watchmen and constables developed too close a relationship with the underworld they were supposed to police, and many believed that such officers were corrupt. This was especially true of those officers who became, or were linked to, the practice of thief-taking.


Concern about high levels of crime in London in the late seventeenth century led the government to adopt the practice of offering substantial rewards for apprehending and convicting those guilty of specific serious crimes, such as highway robbery and coining. This practice expanded in the eighteenth century, and was supplemented by individual victims of crime who offered rewards for the return of their stolen goods. Both practices were facilitated by the development of daily newspapers in the early eighteenth century, which allowed information about such rewards to be widely advertised. The introduction of these financial rewards fundamentally altered the character of criminal justice in the metropolis.

Thief-takers used their knowledge of the criminal underworld to profit from both types of rewards. They negotiated between thieves and the victims of thefts to return stolen goods in exchange for a fee. They also occasionally used their insider knowledge to inform on criminals and prosecute them at the Old Bailey in order collect the substantial rewards offered by the state. This second activity arguably facilitated the administration of criminal justice, but the more corrupt thief-takers went further: they blackmailed criminals with threats of prosecution if they failed to pay protection money. Some even became "thief-makers" by encouraging gullible men to commit crimes, and then apprehending and prosecuting them in order to collect the reward. Such practices illustrate the point that not all "crimes" prosecuted at the Old Bailey had actually taken place; some prosecutions were malicious.

The man who most thoroughly developed all aspects of the thief-taker's trade was Jonathan Wild, the self-styled "Thief-taker General of England and Ireland", who dominated London's criminal underworld in the early 1720s. Wild was eventually tried and convicted at the Old Bailey for receiving stolen goods and hanged in 1725. Many other prosecutors and witnesses in the Proceedings were also thief-takers, though they were rarely identified as such, except by defendants trying to discredit the case being made against them.

Henry Fielding, magistrate and novelist. � Mark Herber.

Despite the bad publicity surrounding Wild's activities, and those of the McDaniel gang at mid-century, the authorities continued to offer rewards and encourage the legitimate side of thief-taking. Without such rewards and the activities of the thief-takers apprehending criminals would have been much more difficult.

The Bow Street Runners

In order to encourage victims to report crimes, magistrates in both the City of London and Middlesex established "rotation offices" in the 1730s where Londoners could be certain of finding a magistrate at fixed hours. One of these rotation offices was set up in Bow Street, near Covent Garden, by Sir Thomas De Veil in 1739. This was taken over by Henry and John Fielding in 1748 shortly after De Veil’s death. The Fieldings introduced a new practice by hiring thief-takers on a retainer who, when a crime was reported, were sent out by the magistrates to detect and apprehend the culprit. They became known as the “Bow Street Runners”, though the men themselves preferred their official title of “Principal Officer” of Bow Street. These men, such as John Sayer and John Townsend, acquired considerable reputations. They also made a comfortable living out of the fees they charged for their services, the rewards they received from victims for identifying suspects, and the rewards from the state for successful convictions.

John Fielding, magistrate. � Mark Herber.

The aim of this new system was to deter criminals by increasing the certainty that they would be detected and prosecuted. By supervising their activities, the Fieldings hoped to improve the reputation of thief-takers, who they believed were essential in the fight against crime. In order to improve the detection rate the Fieldings introduced other innovations: they collected and disseminated information about crimes and suspected criminals, making their Bow Street office the centre of a criminal intelligence network; and they organised horse and foot patrols of major roads by part-time paid constables in order to prevent robberies and other serious crimes.

The Fieldings' approach to thief-taking proved influential, and their runners frequently appear in the Proceedings. More rotation offices were set up in Middlesex and Westminster. In 1792 the Middlesex Justices Act created seven police offices in the metropolis, each with three stipendiary magistrates and six constables charged with detecting and arresting criminals. In 1800 concern about thefts from the docks and shipping led to the opening of a Thames Police Office at Wapping, which eventually employed three stipendiary magistrates and one hundred constables to police the dockside parishes and the river.

'Arrest of a woman at night', Thomas Rowlandson, c.1800. � Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London.

By the end of the eighteenth century London already had both a substantial body of watchmen who were employed to prevent crime, and a system of detective policing designed to play a major role in apprehending suspected criminals. The first response of victims of crime was now as likely to be to report the crime to a rotation office as it was to try and locate the offender themselves. In contrast to the start of the century, many of the defendants who appeared at the Old Bailey had been detected and apprehended by salaried officers or quasi-official thief-takers, and the testimony of such people formed a significant part of the Proceedings. This altered the character of the criminal trial. Lawyers for the defence (when defendants were able to afford them) frequently questioned the honesty of such witnesses since they stood to receive a financial reward if the defendant was convicted.

The Metropolitan Police, 1829

In the first decades of the nineteenth century attempts to combat crime focused on the prevention of crime, as opposed to the detection of criminals. New horse and foot patrols were introduced both at night and during the day, with the men involved frequently referred to as "police". Efforts to rationalise and further extend London's system of policing culminated with the passage in 1829 of Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Act. This set up a centralised police force of 3,000 men under the control of the Home Secretary, with responsibility for policing the entire metropolitan area, except the City of London. Uniformed and carrying only wooden batons, the new "Bobbies" (referring to Robert Peel’s Christian name, and the most polite of the many nicknames the officers received) patrolled the streets on prescribed beats. It was expected that the frequency of their patrols would significantly reduce the opportunities to commit crime.

'Policeman, Scarborough', c. 1830, by William Dempsey.

In many respects the only really novel aspect of the Metropolitan Police was its centralised control by the Home Secretary. Nevertheless, the new arrangements placed much greater weight on the prevention of crime (with detection left to the constables who continued to be employed by the stipendiary magistrates). The impact of the new police on the Proceedings should have been to reduce the number of trials coming to court. There was, however, no such reduction, which suggests that the advent of the Metropolitan Police was not as momentous a development as has sometimes been claimed. Furthermore, in some of the wealthier parishes the number of police officers patrolling the streets immediately after the Metropolitan Police Act was in fact lower than the number of watchman patrolling those same streets before 1829.

The Impact of the Police

Even after the creation of the Metropolitan Police the role of the individual victim remained central in identifying offenders to the authorities and prosecuting them. It was only very gradually that the police assumed full responsibility for prosecuting offenders. Nevertheless the state invested enormous faith in its new police. In 1839 a second Metropolitan Police Act confirmed the institution’s continuing existence, extended its jurisdiction from ten to fifteen miles from Charing Cross and increased its establishment to 4300 men. The Act also abolished the post of constable in the employment of the old magistrates’ offices. At the same time another Act created a similar police organisation for the square mile of the City of London. The preventive policies of the New Police probably had a significant impact reducing minor public offences such as drunkenness and street fighting – the kinds of offences that were heard before magistrates rather than at the Old Bailey. But it soon became apparent that a detective force was needed to work in conjunction with the uniformed, beat patrol officers. Authority was given for the creation of a distinct detective force within the Metropolitan Police in 1842. The new detectives were lionised by writers such as Charles Dickens, who thrilled at experience of going on patrol with Inspector Field.

But, as the Proceedings demonstrate, it was not Dickens’s Inspector Charles Frederick Field who gave evidence time and again at the Central Criminal Court in the 1830s and 1840s, but John Field, Inspector of Coins at the Royal Mint, who appeared regularly, contributing to the prosecution of coiners. Moreover in 1877, the Metropolitan Police Detective Department acquired the unenviable distinction of having several of its leading figures appear as the accused in what was, at the time, the longest trial ever heard at the Central Criminal Court. The Turf Fraud Scandal resulted in a complete reorganisation of the Metropolitan Police Detectives and the formation of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), initially comprising around 250 men out of a force of just under 10,000.

Bow Street Police Court as rebuilt in 1881, from St. John Adcock, Wonderful London (1926/7), vol. II, p.763.

By the turn of the twentieth century the CID could claim to be modern and scientific in its pursuit of offenders. The Proceedings contain the cases of the first use of fingerprints in a successful prosecution (Harry Jackson for burglary in 1902) and the first use of fingerprints to secure a murder conviction (Albert and Alfred Stratton in 1905). But on the eve of the First World War, when the Proceedings ceased publication, the overwhelming majority of police officers were still uniformed men, patrolling specified beats. Moreover a high percentage of the crimes brought before the Central Criminal Court continued to depend not on careful police detection or even on the vigilance of the beat officer, but upon victims reporting crimes to the police and upon victims and witnesses making positive identifications. What had changed most dramatically since 1674 was the introduction of uniformed, salaried officials, controlled by the Home Office, with the responsibility for tracking down suspects and making arrests.

Searching for the Police

A plain clothes officer and a uniformed officer at the entrance to Scotland Yard, from St. John Adcock, Wonderful London (1926/7), vol. III, p.932.

You can search for men who were identified as acting in a policing role in two ways, either by searching by "occupation" on the Personal Details Search Page or by conducting a Keyword Search. When using the occupation search facility you will only find defendants and victims or prosecutors who were given an occupational descriptor in the Proceedings. In undertaking this kind of query you will be searching on the actual text associated with each individual, and will need to take account of variant spellings. Using keyword searching will locate all incidences of the words such as those listed below, whether or not they are associated with a specific defendant, victim or prosecutor. Keyword searching will provide a larger number of results, but some will be irrelevant. Some words that produce a large number of results include:

  • Constable
  • Watchman, Watch-man, or Watchmen
  • Runner
  • Thief taker
  • Police, Policeman
  • Bobby, Bobbies
  • Peeler, Peelers

When searching by keyword it is useful to add the * wildcard after the main letters of a word to account for plurals and some variants. For example, searching by Peeler* will find all incidences of Peeler and Peelers.

Introductory Reading

  • Beattie, J. M., Policing and Punishment in London, 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (Oxford, 2001), Part I
  • Emsley, C., The English Police: A Political and Social History (2nd edn. Harlow, Essex, 1996)
  • Harris, A. T. Policing the City: Crime and Legal Authority in London, 1780-1840 (Columbus, Ohio, 2004)
  • International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research, History from Police Archives

For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.

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