Police Integrity: The Moral Dilemma

By James, Leslie | Contemporary Review, June 1993 | Go to article overview

Police Integrity: The Moral Dilemma


James, Leslie, Contemporary Review


IT is not surprising that following upon the several quite appalling cases of miscarriage of justice involving the fabrication of evidence by the police, there should be a serious loss of public confidence in the police service. Appropriately, there has been a spate of articles in the press and statements by eminent public figures drawing attention to this unhappy state of affairs and calling for urgent steps to restore the integrity of our police forces.

Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice no less, calls for the injection into the training of police 'the realisation that it is not only immoral but criminal to fabricate evidence'. Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, at a summer conference of the Association of Chief Police Officers did not mince his words. 'Attempts at better management,' he said, 'or improving the quality of police service to the public, could not alone restore the damage caused by miscarriages of justice. The public had every right to expect those who upheld the law to honour the law, and probity was the most important asset a policeman could have. The chief constables, as police leaders, needed to ensure that justice was enforced with the highest level of integrity. The police had to accept the fact that it was a lesser evil for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent man to be convicted, especially for a serious crime.'

Sir Peter Imbert, then the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who also addressed the conference, was no less direct. 'I would far sooner', he said, 'see a hundred guilty people walk free than see one officer compromise his position and that of the service by interfering with evidence.'

Sir John Woodcock, Chief Inspector of Constabulary, in a statement reported in The Times on 18th June, 1992, expressed the view that 'public faith in the police service has been severely shaken by causes celebres such as the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four cases'. He held that the police service would have to undergo fundamental reorganization and cultural change to maintain and strengthen public support.

The question immediately arises, therefore, what ethical principles must the police service adopt and what cultural change must it undergo if similar miscarriages of justice are to be avoided in future. Ironically enough, the police officers concerned in fabricating evidence in the particular cases of miscarriage of justice which have shaken public confidence would doubtless insist that they were all acting, as they imagined, in the public interest. By reason of mistaken forensic evidence or for some other reason, they were convinced that the suspects they had arrested were guilty and, therefore, no holds could, in their view, morally be barred in securing their conviction. Public outrage at the crimes perpetrated demanded it, and service and personal prestige were at stake. In these circumstances, observance of the Judges' Rules was a tedious irrelevance and senior police officers and perhaps even judges could be relied upon to turn a blind eye on alleged irregularities. A conviction would silence all criticism and judicial or service commendations could be confidently expected.

To persuade the police to abandon this self-justifying and cynical contempt for legal rules and service regulations is a difficult proposition. It calls for something of a revolution in police thinking and perhaps in public thinking too. All too often, contemporary crime fiction and drama take police malpractices for granted and morally justified. And it is not unknown for persons in high places to encourage the police, sotto voce, to 'give the criminal a lesson'.

The tragedy in all this is that there lies in the whole criminological and penological disciplines an enormous contradiction, a doctrinal incompatibility. On the one hand, the social sciences teach us that the thought processes of man are determined by genetic and environmental factors and that therefore the criminal is no more than the inevitable end product of his own mental development. …

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