Saturday 20 July 2019

'The transgression isn't the fatal offence... it is the efforts to cover it up'

Professor of criminology Jennifer Brown

Tusla file: Sgt Maurice McCabe and his wife Lorraine met Katherine Zappone at Government Buildings on January 25. Photo: Barry Cronin
Tusla file: Sgt Maurice McCabe and his wife Lorraine met Katherine Zappone at Government Buildings on January 25. Photo: Barry Cronin

In everyday life, we all engage in some degree of concealment and dissembling, a process the American sociologist Erving Goffman called "impression management". This is where we seek to present a better image of ourselves in order to achieve a positive gain or avoid a negative consequence and to feel better about ourselves.

It fulfils an individual's psychological need to bolster their self-confidence and is part of everyday social life. But when this spills over into our professional lives - especially where there is institutional reputational damage implicated - the stakes are very much higher. Massaging news, creating disinformation (or alternative facts), scapegoating are all impression management techniques to avoid the consequences of mistakes, or revealing corrupt behaviours used by politicians, big businesses and industry.

Given the potential huge disruptions that follow from failures to contain wrongdoing within an organisation (the McCabe case being a prime example), seeking to protect it as well as salvaging one's own career may be an understandable human response.

When the scandal involves a country's police service, it dents the relationship between the citizen and their service. Because it is through public approval that the police gain their legitimacy.

Such lapses in integrity often spark major reform. The criminologist Maurice Punch charts the turbulence set off by the Dutroux Affair in Belgium. In 1996, two missing children - Laetitia Delhez, aged 14, and Sabine Dardenne, aged 12 - were found by police in a house belonging to Marc Dutroux. The discovery of four bodies added to the country's horror turning to public outrage as the catalogue of errors, accusations of collusion and systemic failure not only of the police but the whole justice system and indeed the Belgium government itself was accused of incompetence. Public protest called 'The Revolt of Tears' demanded not just reform of the police and the justice system but questioned more fundamentally the state of society. The police are in a rather paradoxical position in that their pursuit of crime requires an understanding of how and why people break the law and knowledge of who is doing it. Having such knowledge carries with it not only the means to detect crime but also to exploit it for self-interested and nefarious purposes. We are not just looking at individual "bad apples" but group behaviours rooted in the police culture. Punch argues that this is social behaviour "powerful enough to override the officer's oath of office, personal conscience, police regulations and the law".

Police reform is a feature of policing. Creating inspection regimes, internal affairs investigation departments, better and more supported training have all been part of ensuring against misconduct. In Britain, introducing greater diversity into police recruitment has been thought of as a way to increase police legitimacy by having a more representative cadre of officers. Most recently, the move to create the profession of policing promoted by The College of Policing was instigated by Theresa May when Home Secretary. The introduction of an ethical code, evidence-based practice, and graduate status constructs a professional judgment model of policing which is thought to disrupt the negative aspects of the informal police culture and its more dubious practices.

It takes courage to be a whistleblower and results in strong reactions of support or accusations of disloyalty. Often it is not the transgression itself which is the fatal offence but the efforts to cover it up.

The public are intelligent enough to be told when mistakes or error of judgment occur and perhaps are more forgiving of human error. They get cross when they are lied to and people who should know better, collude in the wrongdoing. It is in the unravelling of cover-up rather than the early admission of failure that leads to the clamour for reform.

Jennifer Brown is professor of criminology at the London School of Economics and deputy chair of the Independent Police Commission in England

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