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How A 1970s Pulp Fiction Film Highlights The Met Police's Institutional Issues

Dottore, chief homicide detective of Rome’s police force, has just arrived at his mistress’ apartment. When he enters, she begins to instigate intimacies. After some casual foreplay, he gets on top of her and strangles her to death—a little more than the petite mort she was expecting. Remaining eerily calm, he replaces his lavish suit and, with an arrogant smirk, begins to place clues and evidence that would so obviously lead to his conviction, but that he is confident will not.

This setup is what forms the rest of the film: pulp-fiction maestro Elio Petri’s Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), in which a senior detective (Gian Maria Volontè) puts himself on a murder he committed just to prove his impunity. Winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and nominated for the Grand Prix at Cannes, there is a clear polemic quality behind Petri’s dark, absurd comedy. Throwing around expressions such as “civilisation is repression” and using questionable methods to reprimand Communist youths, Petri presents Dottore as a dictator in a new Fascist Italy, 30 years after the fall of Mussolini. Deleuze teaches that analysis of culture after world war is often difficult because of the temporary liberation that is felt in the wake of victory or defeat. It is perhaps a bold move, then, for Petri and co-writer Ugo Pirro to liken the state of Rome’s law enforcement to murderous, totalitarian villains.

Photo by CABW via Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

What connects the misdemeanours of the Roman police and those of the Fascist dictatorship is that they are both protected by an institution. Late last month, government official Dame Louise Casey published a report that outlined, in her own words, a “discriminatory culture right across the Metropolitan police; it’s not in pockets, it pervades the whole organisation…institutional racism, institutional sexism, institutional misogyny and homophobia are present across the organisation.” What this report shows us is that the relationship between law enforcement and the people it swears to protect is a one-way door, with police being immune from punishment for crimes they seek to prevent.

In the film, this means that civilians are treated with hostility, as if they are the obstacle to overcome. Indeed, after the murder, Dottore is promoted to political chief, proclaiming in his first speech that “between common and political criminals, the differences are vanishing,” as if being a civilian is itself an ideology. It also means civilians have no business in the goings on of the police. Petri’s way of showing us this is through starting with the murder. Thus, the whole film is imbued with dramatic irony. Dottore makes it big in the political department, despite being a murderer. This fact never comes to light, in spite of his endless ravings about the statistics of increased crime in Italy. Petri isn’t trying to write a moral tale about why strangling people to death is uncouth. He is criticising the institution that allows it to happen.

Upon the release of Casey’s report, the Met’s clean-shaven, straight-talking commissioner Sir Mark Rowley wholly conceded that there were “systemic, management and cultural failings” within the Met. However, he did criticise the use of a word that he called “ambiguous” and “political”. That word was “institutionalised”. Equally unsettled by this phrase was the government, with Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab outright ditching the word, pointing out pedantically that the “vast majority” of officers are good, and that it is only “a few bad apples”.

Photo by Met Police (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Making such a connection between the report and the film may seem a bit heavy. Cinema is the perfect vehicle for Petri’s message, seeing as we only ever experience Roman police through one perspective, embodied by only one psychopathic person. However, this unreality of cinematic storytelling, showing the viewer the police and the murderer simultaneously, can tell us a lot about the idea of institutionalised discrimination. To the public, a Met police officer is just that: a police officer. That is their signification. No other facet of their humanity—be it that they love playing golf on the weekends or that they frequently “ask [female officers] ‘are you a giver or a taker’’’— is visible to the public, except their role to protect and uphold justice. So, a great deal of trust is instilled in them to carry out their jobs, which is arguably why Wayne Couzens was able to rape and murder Sarah Everard in March 2021, as he initially kidnapped her under the pretence of arrest. The issue that arises from this was made even more apparent by North Yorkshire commissioner Philip Alcott, who, in October 2021, with the delusional look of a politician-turned-police commissioner, urged women to be “streetwise about when they can and can’t be arrested”.

What this does is break down a very important distinction that needs to be made about police officers. To members of the public in a time of need, they should resemble only police officers, being reduced to their duties. Another word that is frequently used instead of institutionalised is systemic, which may provide a better route to understand why Alcott’s comments are so wrong. The difference between institutional and systemic is that an institution has the implication of humanity, whereas a system can be strictly mechanical. Thinking about police officers in this way, as part of a mechanical system, means that human discrepancies are never warranted, especially as police officers hold such a critical role in safety and social security.

Casey’s report is not the first published on the Met’s corrupt behaviour. That honour was awarded to Sir William Macpherson in 1997. He concluded that the Met was “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership,” the cause célèbre being the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993. The difference here is that Macpherson’s report was a result of “professional incompetence,” whereas Casey’s report was prompted by a serving constable committing rape and murder, being able to do so because of his mechanical status as a police officer. I wonder if Alcott would’ve told young black men in 1993 to stop for a moment to consider whether the racist thugs chasing them were actually police officers. With 161 currently-serving Met officers holding criminal convictions — which, according to Commissioner Rowley, include “sex offender cases” and “serious violence crimes” — the likelihood doesn’t feel all that low. This is where the systemic reading comes in handy, because, as such critical members of society, the role of the police should be purely mechanical. If it isn’t, this allows the possibility for cases like Sarah Everard’s.

Dottore blatantly, though very helpfully, points this issue of mechanical signifiers out: “in the end, police and criminals resemble each other.” In an investigation into a crime against a person, we can imagine three points that resemble the three participants: the police officer, the criminal, and the victim. These three are of course linked to each other in different ways, forming a sort of triangle. However, this triangle has a line through it, as most police involvement is centred around finding and arresting the criminal, leaving the victim somewhat cut-off. What we are seeing, and what is certainly alluded to in both this line from the film and in Alcott’s comment, is that the two points of police and criminal are merging. In the film, this is played out ironically through Dottore and his mistress Terzi’s (Florinda Bolkan) erotic photoshoots where she poses as a murder victim. But this has been brought a little too close to reality by people like Wayne Couzens.

Photo via Collections - GetArchive (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

At the end of the film, Dottore has succeeded in his deception to such a degree that he is literally screaming his guilt at his peers, who refuse to hear him. Despite its absurdity, the scene represents exactly how avoidable the issues in the Met are. Mayor Sadiq Khan recently said that “the public entrust police officers with powers – including powers to use force or deprive someone of their liberty – to help keep us safe. Trust and confidence are therefore essential to the police’s ability to do their job.” Scrutiny on an individual level is required to achieve this trust. However, the public only ever see them as their mechanical, police signification. This is why Alcott’s comments, as well as the consolation made by the equally delusional Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab that it is only a “few bad apples”, are worryingly insufficient.

The word institutionalised is, therefore, perfect. When Rowley and Raab dismiss it in favour of focusing on the “bad apples”, they may be refusing to acknowledge the real, systemic problems, but they are also fulfilling the duty of the word to criticise the foundations of the organisation. To criticise the institution in this way begs only one solution: institutional overhaul. Investigation, being a film, and therefore a work of art, does not propose a solution, but merely highlights a problem and the path that must be taken to resolve it. However, given the seemingly deliberate resemblance of Dottore’s police to a Fascist dictatorship, and how quickly the corruption of that institution rose and fell, overhauling the Met may be the solution that Petri was trying to suggest.

Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Editor-in-Chief


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