‘It’s like watching a TV drama’: what happens when police go rogue – and get caught?

On an August evening in 2019, two police officers responded to a 999 call from a distressed woman whose partner was violently attempting to push her out of the flat they shared. On the call recording, the woman, Miss A, can be heard crying while her boyfriend shouts in the background. When the officers, PC Paul Onslow and a colleague, arrived at the flat, Miss A’s clothes were ripped and she had a cut on her thumb.

Onslow arrested the boyfriend, drove him to a police station and returned to Miss A’s flat where he began to conduct a domestic violence risk assessment, a tick-box process designed to help police officers make sure that victims are protected from harm. Officers must run through a list of 27 questions, including: “Are you very frightened?”, “Do you feel isolated?”, “Are you having suicidal thoughts?”, “Has your partner ever threatened to kill you?”. In a breach of regulations, Onslow turned off his body-worn camera before embarking on the questionnaire. Halfway through the list, he went off-piste to ask Miss A: “Do you fancy me?”

Four years later, Onslow, who subsequently resigned from his job, is sitting in front of a three-person police misconduct panel, hoping that his career can be resurrected.

“The impropriety of that question needs no explanation,” a barrister for the Met police says.

Before leaving her flat, Onslow gave Miss A his email address, told her he was having relationship difficulties of his own, and hugged her. Miss A decided that “he made her feel good and safe”, and a few days later got in touch with him.

They began a complicated relationship, but, after the 2021 abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, a serving Met police officer, and the ensuing proliferation of news stories about Met police misconduct, Miss A started feeling doubtful about the circumstances in which their relationship began and started to see it as abusive. After a row, she contacted the police to make a complaint.

“He pursued an improper sexual and emotional relationship with Miss A that was intentional, deliberate, targeted and planned,” the barrister states. Onslow should have identified that Miss A was vulnerable to an abuse of trust or power; his failure amounts to gross misconduct. Onslow’s defence lawyer tells the hearing that the former officer “expresses his genuine concern about the impact that his behaviour may have had on Miss A and on public confidence in the police. He deeply regrets and is remorseful for the way he and Miss A met.”

Onslow, who is unshaven, wearing a weirdly jaunty pair of crinkled checked trousers and a black jacket, wipes his nose with a tissue from the box on the desk in front of him, and turns to look through the long glass window that stretches across the back wall of the tribunal room and into the public gallery, where a young woman is watching the proceedings, fidgeting and radiating fury.

Towards the end of the morning she looks at me and says: “Are you from the press? Amazing. I’m Miss A in this case and I’ve got lots to say.”

The Metropolitan police, the UK’s biggest force, has embarked on a concerted clean-up process in the wake of Everard’s murder and the 2023 conviction of David Carrick, another former police officer who was unmasked as one of the country’s most prolific sex offenders. Public trust in the police took another hit when last year Baroness Louise Casey published her excoriating report on the Met concluding that the force was institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic.

A protest ahead of the sentencing of former police officer David Carrick last year. He was unmasked as one of the country’s most prolific sex offenders. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

The number of complaints made against Met police officers has soared, from 842 officers facing misconduct allegations in 2019 to 2,284 in 2023 (the last year for which figures are available). In 2023, the Met police carried out 1,051 gross misconduct investigations, an 80% increase on the previous year. Because of the increased reporting of abuse, there is a huge backlog of cases waiting to be heard; in February this year, there were 377 officers awaiting gross misconduct hearings, many of them suspended on full pay.

In theory, the misconduct process is designed to maintain public confidence in the police service by showing that unethical behaviour is not tolerated, but Casey found that the misconduct process itself was not fit for purpose, noting that it takes an average of 400 days from the moment an allegation of misconduct is made to the day a decision is taken and a sanction is handed out. She found that the Met’s misconduct courts have historically let more officers off than other forces around the country, with 55-60% of internal allegations (made by colleagues) resulting in a no case to answer outcome. The cases that end up in a misconduct hearing are the tip of the iceberg because often allegations are still not treated seriously enough. “We heard that supervisors and managers are actively dissuading their staff from reporting misconduct,” she notes.

Casey declared herself “fundamentally pro-police” in her report. “I have personal reasons to be thankful to them. Policing attracts the best of humanity,” she wrote. “But policing needs to accept that the job can also attract predators and bullies – those who want power over their fellow citizens, and to use those powers to cause harm and discriminate.”

Baroness Louise Casey, whose report excoriated Britain’s biggest police force. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/AP

Ten days spent in London’s police misconduct courts late last year and this spring provides a snapshot of routine bad behaviour. These hearings have been open to the public since 2015 to enhance transparency, and forthcoming cases are summarised like cinema listings on the police website – members of the public can watch while the adjudicating panel deliberates over whether, for example, a police officer should be sacked for taking videos of himself masturbating, while wearing his uniform, in the locker room and then the toilets at Peckham police station, and sending the videos to a member of the public. Or they could sit in while a panel considers what to do with a police officer who sent a series of racist voice memos to a colleague who was attending a professional standards course over Zoom, prompting the colleague to listen to the messages without putting himself on mute, so that 21 other police officers heard the abuse. There are sessions concerning officers who have taken drugs, abused their partners, sworn at hospital staff, and driven their police cars dangerously while off duty. Usually no one turns up to watch.

A couple of weeks after Onslow’s hearing, another three-person panel gathers in the same central London tribunal room to consider whether PC Stuart Dunne and PC Martin Binala should be fired after a misguided stop and search went catastrophically wrong. An innocent man was beaten, handcuffed and laid out in the middle of the road, with injuries to his face and body, while the officers, who gradually realised they had messed up, tried to work out what to do next.

The main south London misconduct hearing venue is a series of rooms rented in the Transport for London headquarters, behind a steel reinforced security door so heavy to open that staff complain about the strain to their arms. The judging panel sits on a slightly raised platform at the front of the room; it is made up of an independent legally qualified chair, joined by a police officer (who has had no involvement with the case) and a layperson. They have the power to clear the accused officers or hand them written warnings that will remain on their files for a year, or final written warnings (which will mean that future misconduct is likely to lead to dismissal), or to dismiss them without notice.

Inside the tribunal, Binala, a black officer in his late 20s, is waiting for proceedings to begin, wearing a police tunic with shining silver buttons. His white colleague, Dunne, looks about a decade older and sits two rows behind him.

The panel hears that in September 2021 Binala and Dunne were working for a violence suppression unit, wearing plainclothes, tracksuits and shorts, patrolling an area of west London classified as a drugs and violence hotspot in an unmarked vehicle. They spotted a man sitting in his car and for reasons that never really become clear, decided he needed to be questioned. Without completing a check on the numberplates, Binala got out of the car and went over to speak to the driver, a warehouse worker called Karo Grigoryan. Binala claimed in the incident report he filled out later that he smelled cannabis coming from inside the car, but no evidence was found of drugs inside the car, and in any case the car door was shut and the windows were closed, so an Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation later found it would have been impossible for him to smell cannabis coming from inside. Crucially, when Dunne completed his incident report, he also said he could smell cannabis, but didn’t specify that it was coming from inside the car.

Neither Dunne nor Binala had on body-worn cameras, although they should have done, but a third more senior officer was wearing his, and the tribunal watches a long, upsettingly violent recording of the officers’ actions.

Grigoryan, parked not far from his home, noticed the car slowing down and the men inside peering at him, and became frightened when first one and then another man got out and went over to him. Because the men weren’t wearing police uniforms, Grigoryan assumed they were criminals about to rob him, and began to fight them off. A struggle started, and eight seconds later Grigoryan was pulled roughly from the car by Binala. Binala flashed a warrant card at him, but so quickly that Grigoryan says he did not register it. English is not his first language – he grew up speaking Polish and Armenian – and he was confused by what the men were shouting at him.

“If they had checked, they would have found out that the car was not linked to criminal activity,” the barrister for the IOPC says. “Mr Grigoryan had no previous convictions, had never been involved in crime, and there were no drugs in the car.”

Somehow, Grigoryan was wrestled on to the road and can be heard on the recording saying: “But what I do? Help me, help me.”

Binala is recorded as saying: “Get your hands off my fucking head, you prick. Stop fucking resisting. Stop fucking resisting.” Some Pava spray is sprayed into Grigoryan’s face, and he is told he is under arrest for obstructing a police stop and search operation. He can be heard panting as he lies on the road and repeating: “Sorry. Sorry.”

One of the police officers notices blood on the street and says with surprise: “It’s all his blood.”

“Why were you fighting us? We told you a million times we were police,” one of the police officers can be heard saying on the recording, although the officers have shouted police only a couple of times, after the struggle has begun.

“I don’t know. I’m scared. I think you want to take my car,” Grigoryan replies in a small voice.

Watching the video is shocking. The aggressive, noisy swearing of the police officers is disturbing because it is so sudden, and it is painful to watch Grigoryan, panicking so much that he is struggling to breathe, left for so long on the road, bleeding and handcuffed, while the officers decide that “actually he is an all right lad” and discuss what to do next. After a while, one officer goes to Grigoryan’s home to fetch his mother and father, who are also frightened and confused by these casually dressed men in tracksuits and shorts who do not look remotely like police officers. His mother starts crying as she sees her son who has been propped up against a wall, on the pavement, with blood on his face. “What you do to my son?” she asks.

There is a short break in the hearing proceedings. The only member of the public watching is a woman who has recently retired from a 30-year career as a Lloyds bank teller. “You’re close to the action here; at the Old Bailey you’re higher up, farther away,” she says. “This is like watching a police drama on television.” She feels critical of the police officers, who she says look very cheerful. “I wouldn’t be smiling, not after that video; I think the power gets to the head.”

Later, Grigoryan is called to give evidence, with the aid of an interpreter. When he was in hospital, doctors noted that he had abrasions on his knees and his neck was bruised from strangulation. “I lost faith that the police are there to protect me. When I see the police now I feel scared. As a human being it had a great impact on me,” he says.

Public confidence in the Met “to do a good job locally” fell from 70% in 2016 and 2017 to a low of 45% in March 2022; one of the aims of the misconduct courts is restore that trust.

A list of charges is read out to Binala: he breached honesty and integrity rules when he falsely claimed to have smelled cannabis coming from inside the car; he was not wearing the proper attire for work; he did not have sufficient grounds for an arrest; he was not wearing his body-worn camera; he did not follow proper procedure. “Police officers should act with self-control and tolerance, treating members of the public with courtesy. You failed to identify yourself as a police officer, you verbally abused him, you left him handcuffed, you delayed calling an ambulance. This amounts to gross misconduct.”

His barrister, paid for by the Police Federation, replies that Binala does not accept gross misconduct or indeed misconduct. “He was acting in the line of duty.”

Dunne faces almost identical charges and also denies them. Binala’s lawyer argues that the situation was just a “horrible misunderstanding” where both sides thought they were dealing with criminals; she suggests that Grigoryan responded badly to being approached by a tall, black man, not in uniform, and suggests that this might be why he assumed he was being robbed.

“Did your perception differ at all because he is a young black man?” she says. Grigoryan listens to the question translated by an interpreter and shakes his head.

Binala seems confident during the cross-examination. He argues that he wouldn’t have had to wrestle Grigoryan to the floor if he had been more compliant. “If he had said, ‘Hello officer, how can I help you?’, then I wouldn’t have had to put the handcuffs on him,” he says. “It was a very stressful situation. I didn’t know what this person was trying to do. If I don’t control him, I might get beaten up.”

A decision is deferred for a month to give the panel time to think.

Some cases are dealt with more quickly.

“I definitely had two daiquiris. I definitely had a Jäger. More than likely I would have had two or three rum and cokes. Then two shots in the Wetherspoon’s,” Connor Harris, 25, tells a misconduct tribunal hearing.

Two of his female colleagues have reported his attempts to grope and kiss them at a colleague’s birthday celebration held at Puttshack, a bar where you can play mini golf, in White City, west London. Harris had started drinking at about 4pm and was already extremely drunk by the time he arrived at Puttshack. His colleagues described him as “pretty obliterated”.

A number of the misconduct hearings involve events that have taken place when young officers have got very drunk at the end of a run of shifts.

The Met police barrister recounts the events of the night in a flat monotone: “You followed one female officer out of the venue, and asked her, ‘Do you fancy me?’. She said no, and you replied. ‘I love you.’ You put your hands on her hips and then on her bottom, put your arms around her shoulders, pushed her into a corner of an electric substation outside the venue and told her, ‘You want to kiss me.’ She replied that she did not. You again said, ‘You want to kiss me.’ She said, ‘No.’”

A second female officer intervened, but he began harassing her, too. “You persistently tried to kiss her despite being told no. This amounts to gross misconduct.”

In her report, Casey notes that female police staff “put up with high levels of sexism and misogyny from their male colleagues”. In one borough command unit, 47% of female employees who responded to a survey said they had experienced such inappropriate behaviour in the last six months. Several of the misconduct cases over the past few months concern allegations from female officers of unwanted buttock touching and groping of breasts by their male colleagues.

A vigil for Sarah Everard who was abducted, raped and killed by Wayne Couzens in 2021. Photograph: Joshua Bratt/EPA

One police woman told Casey during her report research that senior staff sometimes fail to take complaints of sexism or harassment seriously. “To the contrary, they would join in with sexual comments, sexual degrading of female officers.”

Brendan Brookshaw, who as former chief inspector of Devon and Cornwall police ran the force’s misconduct hearings, is now studying the process for his work lecturing in policing and criminology at the University of Plymouth, and says that much of the abuse goes unreported.

“Post Couzens and post Casey, they’re trying to get to grips with the people who carry out sexual misconduct, but it’s hard to shift the hyper-masculine culture that runs through all police forces,” he says. “If you’re a bloke and you have lots of sexual partners, then you’re a lad or a player or you’re a legend.”

The cases that make it to misconduct hearings are the tip of the iceberg, he adds, because most employees do not report abuse as a result of the “blue wall of silence – the belief that what happens in the police stays in the police”.

Harris accepts the allegations, acknowledging that he was so drunk he cannot remember anything. He sits with his hands interlocked in front of him, wearing a grey suit. His pale face grows steadily redder as the case against him is summarised.

“I don’t feel capable of doing such a thing. I massively regret that decision to get drunk. It’s been on my shoulders for two years, from the moment that I get up to the moment I sleep, if I can sleep,” he says.

He tells the panel that he was 23 when this happened. “I consumed too much alcohol too quickly for my body. Maybe there was peer pressure,” he says. He adds that he has wanted to be a police officer “since I could walk and talk. I made a mistake. I’ve not behaved with any intent or malice. This was an error because I haven’t controlled my drinking.”

The prosecuting barrister tells the panel: “Of course this is not the most serious sexual assault that will have come across your desk, but the groping was persistent. It was demanding and unpleasant.”

The panel notes that Harris’s level of intoxication displayed an “abject lack of judgment” and that his behaviour was “incredibly disrespectful of his female colleagues”. They find him guilty of gross misconduct and hand him a final written warning that will remain in force for the next five years.

Met officers are 82% white and 71% male; Casey suggests this may go some way towards explaining the force’s institutionalised racism and sexism.

After another drunken evening, this time at a colleague’s leaving do at Dirty Martini, in the City of London, PC Luke Hunt was travelling home by train with three other officers, when he started interrupting one of them, referred to in the hearing just as PC O, an officer who describes his ethnicity as black African.

On two or three occasions Hunt addressed O as “black boy”, and also said, “Shut up, black boy.”

All three of Hunt’s companions were horrified; one of his colleagues told him to be quiet. O sat in silence for the rest of the journey; later, he wrote in a witness statement that he did not want to work alongside Hunt in future, because he felt “so disrespected by that comment”. He said he had no desire to see Hunt lose his job, adding that “a good outcome for the complaint process would be for PC Hunt to learn about boundaries, and to be more mature and respectful towards others”.

Before the hearing, Hunt offered an unreserved apology to O, but much of the cross-examination focuses on his failure to see immediately that he had said something offensive and the lack of apology to his colleague in the weeks that followed the train journey.

The defence barrister asks O if it is possible that Harris was “trying to be funny rather than racist? I’m not suggesting it was right or funny or appropriate, but is it possible that he was trying and failing to say something amusing?”

“There’s nothing amusing about that phrase,” O replies. “There’s a million other ways to be amusing.”

When he is called to give evidence, Hunt says: “I am more shocked at myself than anyone else; I don’t know what happened. I can’t apologise enough for it.”

“Why did you say it?”

“I can only do an educated guess that I was trying to make a very evidently terrible, terrible joke.” He wipes away tears and coughs, and wipes away tears again. “I can’t explain it.”

The panel concludes at the end of a three-day hearing that Hunt’s conduct amounts to gross misconduct and he is dismissed immediately.

A month after their hearing, Binala and Dunne return to hear the panel’s judgment. Dunne is smiling, looking chipper; Binala pulls his shoulders back, lays his hands on the desk, waiting for a decision on the future of his career.

Binala’s defence barrister points out that he was the most junior officer in the car that evening, with only three months in the unit. She says her client had made “a lapse in language” when he wrote the report claiming to have smelled cannabis from inside the car, and should have written that he “assumed the smell came from the vehicle”.

“He did not set out to be dishonest. I cannot stress how much of a good person Mr Binala is.” She tells the hearing that he has worked in social care before moving to the police, working with autistic adults, taking them shopping and on swimming trips. She adds that Binala has had no training or additional support, as a young black male, to help make sure that he is identified as a police officer, particularly when he is in plainclothes. “It is harder for him than for officers who are older and a different complexion.”

She stresses that Binala had “an impeccable record” and is “greatly valued by his colleagues”. “The Metropolitan police do not have a great many young black officers with the degree of insight that PC Binala has. He is an asset to the Met police,” she says. “If they knew everything about him, the public would want him in the police. He is still proud to wear this uniform; this is the job of his dreams; he has no back-up plans.”

But Binala is ruled to have been dishonest when he recorded in his police report that he smelled cannabis coming from inside Grigoryan’s car, and is found guilty of gross misconduct and dismissed without notice. Dunne (who wrote in his notes of the event that he could smell cannabis in the air) is also found guilty of misconduct but is just given a written warning.

Both men quickly leave the hearing room without displaying any emotion. After listening to the defence barrister’s failed attempts to persuade the panel that Binala should keep his job, the recently retired bank teller (who has returned to the public gallery for the conclusion of the case) is in tears.

Clearly every case is judged on its own merits, but Casey found that black officers are 81% more likely to be in the misconduct system than their white counterparts and are consistently more likely to be sanctioned for their conduct.

A Met police spokesperson said a post-Casey drive to improve standards meant there would be more action to “arrest, prosecute or dismiss those who are abusing their position and should not be police officers, and badly let down the vast majority of their dedicated and brave colleagues”.

In May, changes to the misconduct system were introduced, designed to make it easier for police chiefs to sack officers – senior police officers will now chair the hearings, replacing the independent legal representative who will take a secondary role. Casey’s review had noted that the number of officers sacked began to fall when independent chairs were introduced to run the misconduct process.

There is widespread scepticism over whether the slow work of misconduct courts is enough to tackle the force’s institutional racism, sexism and homophobia. Professor Layla Skinns, a criminologist at Sheffield University studying police misconduct, says the force’s prevailing culture remains unchallenged. “Misconduct hearings focus on individual officers, the rotten apples – not the rotten barrels or rotten orchards.”

Brookshaw describes the work of misconduct hearings as “hyper-procedural pseudo-compliance”. “The police are following the processes, but it’s not always combined with a genuine desire for reform or oversight. It feels like we’re locked in a cycle of crisis, reform, repeat. It doesn’t yet feel like we’re seeing wholesale cultural reform.”

Miss A is furious about the length of time it has taken to investigate her complaint about former PC Onslow. She made a call to 101 in July 2021; it took officers two years to investigate, and she has had to wait another six months for the hearing. During that time she has rebuilt her relationship with Onslow and regrets her complaint. An effusive letter is read out from her expressing her wish that they could have met in a different way. It would have been better, she says, if he had spilled coffee on her in a coffee shop, or if they had met at Tesco, on a train, at a friend’s wedding or on a dating app, “but life unfortunately offered something else”.

It is already clear that the panel is concerned by Onslow’s decision to switch off his body-worn camera before asking her if she fancied him. Both he and Miss A spend the latter part of the hearing in tears.

“Abuse of position for sexual purpose is a form of corruption. This can cause substantial mistrust in the police, particularly where the victim is vulnerable; many people come into contact with the police when they are at a particularly difficult period of their lives, and they are entitled to be treated professionally,” the court hears from the Met police barrister.

During the lunch hour, Miss A says she has tried to withdraw her complaint. “I should never have made the statement; you can’t withdraw it once it’s in the system. He is not a bad seed.

“He was ashamed, he resigned. This is the end for him, for his career,” she says. “It was a slip; we are all human beings – we can’t be perfect.”

Miss A says she is still hoping for miracles and that somehow he will be allowed to return to his job. But she acknowledges that the way the relationship began has troubled her. “I knew from the beginning it was misconduct. It got to me a lot.”

Neither she nor Onslow return after lunch for the findings to be read out. The panel recognises that she claims not to have suffered direct harm, but notes that she was “sufficiently aggrieved” at one point in the relationship to initiate the complaint. “The culpability of former officer Onslow is high in this case. He has been found to have utilised his professional position in order to pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship with a vulnerable person.”

They conclude that he has committed gross misconduct and will be barred from returning to his former job.

The Guardian

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