Home Secretary Theresa May described as “profoundly disturbing” a report earlier this month that found undercover Scotland Yard officers tried to influence the family of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence. She said that policing stood damaged by the findings.
The Metropolitan Police is also facing legal action brought by five women who say they were deceived into intimate relationships with undercover police. A police officer is in jail for lying about witnessing the “Plebgate” row involving MP Andrew Mitchell in Downing Street.
From the alleged Hillsborough police cover up, to the arrests of current and former police officers as part of the Met’s Operation Elveden investigation into alleged payments to public officials in return for information, the institution has faced a raft of negative publicity recently. Public trust in the police has changed little in three decades. So do the public still trust their bobbies?
“We need to put what we see in the media in context,” says Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis, president of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales. “There are over 120,000 police officers in England and Wales and – whilst I don’t condone any of the conduct of officers who do bad things, who are corrupt – the vast majority of police officers and police staff out there do a fantastic job day in, day out.”
Polling evidence suggests that whether or not public trust in police is as high as it should be, it hasn’t been much affected by the recent bad news. Research company Ipsos MORI asked members of the public earlier this month if they would “generally trust the police to tell the truth or not”. Sixty-five per cent said they would, compared with 31% who wouldn’t. That rating is as high as trust in police has been since 1983, when Ipsos MORI – which has thelongest-running series on trust compared with other polling firms – first asked the question.
The figure has varied remarkably little over the past 31 years, generally hovering in the low 60s. The lowest police trust rating was 58% in 2005.
Research firm YouGov has been asking peopleabout trust in the police since 2003. It recorded a significant drop between that first poll and 2006, but in the past eight years the figures have been fairly steady. Earlier this month, YouGov found 67% of people said they trusted the police. The same poll asked if respondents’ trust had been affected by recent reports about the Stephen Lawrence case – less than one in three said it had.
Another polling firm, ComRes, asked in October how likely people were to think a police officer speaking either on TV or in the street was telling the truth. Eighty two per cent answered either “very likely” or “fairly likely”. A more recent poll for ComRes, published in January, found 50% of people agreed with the statement “I trust the police”, compared with 26% who didn’t – a similar ratio to the Ipsos MORI polling.
The consistency enjoyed by police in the Ipsos MORI series contrasts with, for example, trust in the clergy, which was 85% when the survey questions were first asked in 1983. The figure for 2013 was 66%, a drop of 19 percentage points over three decades.
Although police score more highly than politicians and journalists – who are trusted by just one in five – TV newsreaders, teachers and judges all have higher trust ratings. Doctors are the most trusted profession, with nine in 10 people putting their faith in them.
Looking further back, there does appear to have been a time when people were more trusting of police. The 1962 Royal Commission on The Police reported: “No less than 83% of those interviewed professed great respect for the police, 16% said they had mixed feelings, and only 1% said they had little or no respect.”