The Guardian view on policing in crisis: the Met needs a superhead

The daunting task awaiting the soon-to-be-appointed chief of the Metropolitan police just got harder. As of this week, the force has been placed under conditions known as “engage” – the term used by the police inspectorate (HMIC) for special measures. While the full details are not yet public, this means that the Met, along with five other forces including Greater Manchester, must accept external help and monitoring.

The indications are that the decision on the Met – by far the UK’s highest-profile force, with responsibility for counter-terrorism as well as policing the capital – was based on a buildup of serious problems and failures to fix them. These include ongoing issues with stop and search, with grounds for a quarter of stops not recorded; poor handling of victims; huge gaps in the recording of crime; and strip-searches carried out on children. At least eight further cases are being independently examined after the force apologised for its treatment of Child Q, who was searched at school while she had her period.

Also mentioned in the letter sent to the acting commissioner, Sir Stephen House, are the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer, failures in the investigation of the murders carried out by Stephen Port and a large backlog of online child abuse referrals. In his annual report published earlier this year, the HMIC’s outgoing head, Sir Tom Winsor, delivered a pointed reminder that the 2016 child protection inspection of the Met resulted in “the most damning report the inspectorate has ever published”.

This litany of errors and the HMIC’s lack of confidence in recent progress are obviously bad news for Sir Stephen and his team. But Priti Patel, the home secretary, Kit Malthouse, the police minister, and Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, should also be worried. The field of candidates that Ms Patel must shortly choose between (while having regard for Mr Khan’s views) stands at two, after senior figures critical of the police’s record on racism were judged unsuitable both for this role and the top job at the National Crime Agency. With Mr Malthouse rewriting a speech earlier this week to attack Mr Khan, the politicisation of policing could hardly be more blatant.

Such meddling and point-scoring risk making a difficult situation impossible. Ministers must take responsibility for cuts that led to a decrease in skill and experience in the ranks. Sir Tom has made it clear that the risk of organised crime infiltration is more than a plotline in Line of Duty. Meanwhile, a new joint report highlights significant failings in the way that domestic abuse allegations against police officers are handled. Rocketing online fraud is yet another big problem.

Clearly, police in the capital and elsewhere will have to work hard to win back the trust that they have lost, particularly among women and black Londoners of both sexes. Based on the latest downgrading of the Met, the more plausible appointment would seem to be the remaining external candidate, Mark Rowley. But ministers’ credibility is also on the line, and nothing they have said or done recently gives confidence in their ability to make a bold decision, for the right reasons, and offer appropriate support to a process of improvements.

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