Can London’s new Met Police chief fix the force’s problems?

Veteran US police chief William Bratton made his name commanding both the New York and Los Angeles forces, reversing the tide when crime reached high water marks and public confidence had dived.

So he understands the scale of the challenge facing Sir Mark Rowley, the newly appointed commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police. “It is the best opportunity in policing in the world at the moment . . . because everywhere you look there is something to fix,” he said.

Rowley, 57, assumes the job in the wake of a string of scandals and revelations about racism and misogyny at the Met, which led his predecessor Cressida Dick to step down in February.

When he takes up the role in September he will be under intense pressure to stamp out the toxic culture that has taken root and restore faith in the ability of officers at a time when public trust has hit record lows.

Along with five other failing forces in England and Wales, the Met was in June placed under “special measures” by the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services. This means it will be monitored and forced to produce a wide-ranging improvement plan.

An estimated 69,000 crimes go unrecorded each year in London, the police watchdog said and, among other systemic failures, the Met’s performance was falling short of national standards in its handling of emergency calls.

It also cited the scandals, including the murder last year of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, a serving Met officer at the time, which have had a chilling effect on public confidence. Only 57 per cent of Londoners said the capital’s police could be relied on when needed in the most recent quarterly survey by the Mayor of London’s office.

Veteran US police chief William Bratton, centre, in New York © Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Bratton ran the police departments in three of America’s largest cities — Boston, New York and Los Angeles — during a career that spanned nearly 50 years, and in 2011 was a contender to take over the Met. He partly blames an underlying philosophy of policing embedded on both sides of the Atlantic that views the role of the police simplistically as catching criminals.

But Bratton said no police force could have survived the level of cuts that London’s has had over the past decade without serious consequences for public safety and police morale.

The government has increased the Met’s annual budget to £3.24bn in 2022-23 and is supporting it to recruit an additional 2,599 officers. But these increases come after a decade in which funding was slashed by up to 20 per cent annually.

“The Met is incredibly understaffed for its growing responsibilities,” Bratton said. To boot, Rowley must navigate between competing political forces, both of which he answers to.

While Priti Patel, the home secretary, has power over his appointment, she needs consent from Sadiq Khan, the opposition Labour mayor of London, for the role to be workable.

Speaking to the Financial Times at a community centre in Brixton, Khan said he and Patel agreed that Rowley was right for the job. The new chief has the benefit of some outside perspective after spending four years out of policing,

Rowley started his career in Birmingham and was chief constable of Surrey before joining the Met in 2011 as an assistant commissioner. He went on to head the national counter-terrorism unit before leaving policing in 2018.

Khan said Rowley got “what all the fuss is about” and had a comprehensive plan for reform.

“What we want is trust and confidence improving. We want women and girls feeling confident in the police service, we want black Londoners in particular having more confidence in the police service to the point where they want to join,” the mayor added. “We have got to get the basics right.”

The basics, however, are depleted. Dozens of London police stations have been sold off during the past 10 years alongside thousands of job cuts.

Zoe Billingham
Zoe Billingham: ‘Mark thinks outside the box. He is prepared to challenge convention’ © Simon Buck/FT

One former British police chief said morale was at rock bottom. Frontline supervision had all but disappeared, he said, and superintendents were presiding over so much turf, it was difficult for them to remain in touch with strategic thinkers in the community.

“Rowley will be pulled in a thousand directions,” he said. “He has got to restructure the Met, break it up, and get frontline services back in place.”

“The Met is a big beast. It needs big change so it will need big money,” he added, stressing that meant billions not millions.

The principles Bratton applied when confronted with crisis went back to the basics of policing by consent as outlined by Sir Robert Peel when he created the Metropolitan Police in 1829, he said. These included a focus on tackling social disorder and establishing public trust street by street.

Zoe Billingham, who served at the police inspectorate for more than a decade until last year, said the problems at the Met had been magnified by the recent scrutiny it has come under and a relentless volume of demand at a time when resources were dwindling.

“When an organisation is under pressure, when supervisors can’t do the job well, when there is limited training and when there’s a sense of we’re all in this together because it’s such a battle against adversity, then you are likely to see a more toxic culture,” she said.

Counter-corruption measures needed to be re-established with a stronger vetting process put in place for recruits, she said.

“Mark thinks outside the box. He is prepared to challenge convention,” she said. “But he will need to be very upfront with the public and be clear that there will be more of these [scandals] before it gets better.”

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