The Guardian view on the Westminster attack inquest: the police must change | Editorial

The Met’s reluctance to admit to mistakes that may have contributed to an officer’s death is a worrying sign of a closed mindset

We all make mistakes – as individuals and organisations. The important thing is to admit and learn from them. This matters most when the mistakes are serious ones. And that is why the failure of the Metropolitan police to acccept its share of responsibility for the death of one of its own officers in a terrorist attack last year, until it was forced to do so by a coroner, is so worrying.

In a ruling delivered on Wednesday, Mark Lucraft found that PC Keith Palmer and the other four victims of last March’s attack in Westminster – Kurt Cochran, Leslie Rhodes, Aysha Frade and Andreea Cristea – were unlawfully killed by Khalid Masood, who drove into pedestrians before crashing his vehicle and running at the gates of parliament. There he murdered Mr Palmer, who was unarmed, with a knife before being shot by an armed officer who was guarding the then defence secretary, Michael Fallon. The coroner highlighted police “shortcomings” including in the supervision of two armed officers who were also on duty. Had they been at the gate, he said, instead of patrolling the grounds, “it is possible that they may have been able to prevent PC Palmer suffering fatal injuries”.

Mr Palmer’s family accused senior officers of closing ranks, and said they were shocked by the force’s lack of transparency. When Mr Palmer was stabbed, his two armed colleagues had been away from the gate for almost an hour. While they gave evidence at the inquest, the sergeants who managed them did not. Mr Palmer’s widow, Michelle, said “nobody wants to take responsibility” for what happened.

This is all the more disappointing following what has looked like modest progress, over the past few years, towards a more open system. Theresa May, when she was home secretary, commissioned a review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody, after campaigns by the families of Olaseni Lewis and Sean Rigg, both of whom died following restraint from police officers while suffering mental ill health. The public authority (accountability) bill, which fell when parliament was dissolved last year, would have created a duty on public bodies and officials of “candour and frankness”, and an obligation to assist investigations, after something goes wrong. The National Health Service already has a statutory “duty of candour”, which was one of the recommendations of the Francis report on the scandal at Mid Staffordshire NHS trust.

This duty should be extended to the rest of the public sector – police, prison service, councils – as soon as possible. But cultural change is needed too, to shift organisational behaviour that too often appears motivated largely by self-defence. The truth is that the Palmer family’s frustration and upset at the adversarial stance adopted by the state in its dealings with them is far from unusual, with the protracted ordeal of the Hillsborough families the most famous example. While such defensiveness may in some cases be attributed to the fear of costly litigation, it ill serves grieving people who are desperate to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones – and to ensure that the same thing never happens to anyone else.

The Westminster attack was shocking, and the demands placed on the police by terrorism should not be underestimated. Cuts to funding and staffing, and rising violent crime, have affected morale. But there is no good reason not to own up to mistakes such as those that may have contributed to Mr Palmer losing his life. This week, the Met has been found wanting.

Contributor

Editorial

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