Font Size: A A A

Home > Reviews > Crossing the Line of Duty

Crossing the Line of Duty

Author Neil Root

ISBN No 9780750989206

Review date 24/05/2019

No of pages 208

Publisher History Press

Publisher URL

Year of publication 02/05/2019


Our Review


£ 16.99

Although after all that's happened you don't hear it so often, but you can still come across people who (presumably without irony) say that Britain has the best police in the world, just as it has the best tea, taxis, weather, football, and parliament; and the greatest history. That might play well with the tourists but doesn't stand up when you actually examine the details, as Neil Root has done in his latest paperback as a true crime historian, Crossing the Line of Duty.

While the picture on the cover is of Commander Kenneth Drury, on his way to his trial for corruption in 1977 as the former head of the Flying Squad, Root's sub-title widens the subject to 'how corruption, greed and sleaze brought down the Flying Squad'. It's better known as the Sweeney, which still gets regular outings on an ITV channel. As that suggests, there's still a frisson of excitement about the Squad, formed in 1919. As Root sets out at once, the Flying Squad 'had become a byword for toughness and integrity, and internationally famous', but over decades corruption became the norm. The corruption spread wider; the head of the Obscene Publication Squad ('Dirty Squad' for short), also went to prison, and many other lower-ranking officers.

Root sums up what went wrong early on: "The independence, autonomy and sheer power wielded by the senior officers of these Squads, along with the trials in the Drugs Squad, and the allegations made against the Fraud Squad, would all be exposed in the 1970s ... It was a shared culture of ingrained sleaze."

As that implies, while Drury and others like him at the top led the corruption, gained by it and set the tone, they had not parachuted into the Metropolitan Police; they had been there for decades without punishment or exposure.

As for sources, Root has gone to the National Archives for the Met's files on the investigations of the 1970s, with some redactions (such as the names of those investigated but not taken to court) and some requests to view under the Freedom of Information Act denied, as some living could be affected by the disclosure. One of the books in Root's list of books consulted, The Fall of Scotland Yard, a Penguin Special of 1977, is equally worth reading, to give a sense of the press sniffing at the corrupt squads and of the smell of the Seventies, including that aura (as exploited by the likes of Drury) that British police were the best (also pushed by The Sweeney on TV) and could not do wrong. In fairness, as Root mentions, a former detective of the era does say the television Sweeney was 'not far off the mark'.

Root too gives a flavour of the era, beginning with Drury in the dock at Bow Street magistrates court (now one of many public buildings sold to the private sector) in central London, grossly overweight, thanks to the good food and good living thanks to criminals.

Root demolishes the excuses of these and any other corrupt police; that they cut corners for the greater good, to bang up criminals. In truth, as the Penguin Special book at the time set out, the police were parasites on the pornography of Soho, and London robbers and other criminals they consorted with; keeping them going; 'even helping one pornographer produce his material' (page 153). The innocent suffered, such as imprisoned men for the 'Luton Post Office Murder' framed by Drury before he became head of the Flying Squad. Planted evidence, forced confessions; hence the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, to set out (and limit) police powers to stop, search, arrest and detain and interview suspects. Another reason that such corruption could not happen today is that Soho of the pornographers has changed geographically and economically.

Another excuse for Drury and his kind is that they were dealing with vice, striptease clubs and porno shops - what else could you expect? Except that corruption has a habit of spreading. Root mentions an (unnamed) MD of a security company, outwardly respectable, but moving in the same circles as the corrupt coppers and the hardened criminals who raked in money in Soho. A Flying Squad detective inspector, a day after he was interviewed by police, voluntarily resigned, and went to work for the MD.

Yet another excuse - also trotted out by fraudsters in industry - might be that they weren't paid enough; and police forces in that era of near full employment did have trouble recruiting, as pay and conditions were relatively unattractive. Yet as Root points out, being underpaid 'is no mitigation for the large-scale corruption and bribe-taking revealed in the elite squads'. Interestingly, the 'deeply corrupt' officers such as Drury seemed to do it not merely for the proceeds, but for the love of it; because they could; they were, as Root writes at the end, 'brazenly bent'.

Root concludes: "Institutionalised corruption grows if unchecked, but it's the culture that feeds it," in other words wider shortcomings at Scotland Yard, such as institutionalised racism. Is this a story of happy ever after, that in the end the corrupt got caught and the ship righted itself, thanks to the new broom of Met Commissioner Sir Robert Mark (a story in itself)? Hardly, as convictions of two men framed for the Luton murder were quashed after a mere 33 years. Root suggests 'a closing of ranks at the highest levels, a brushing of this heinous injustice under the quilted carpet of the Establishment'.

As Root's story shows, the risk is inherent in any police work that uses informants; Drury and other 'corrupt senior officers' took bribes and hospitality, and in return turned a blind eye to crime or helped by giving warning of raids. Junior officers were tempted to follow or implicated if they stayed. Most left the Met, and the Flying Squad was broken up (though the name has proved interestingly long-lasting). For all the grim and sordid detail, a strength of Root's book is that he can relish the absurdity of that strange decade, the 1970s; the haircuts and clothes, the motors, the postcards from Cyprus, the fondue.