A brief, bad tempered quarrel between a politician and a couple of police officers has escalated into one of the biggest scandals to hit Britain's police force in recent years.
Andrew Mitchell, a senior Conservative minister, resigned from his post as chief whip last year, after police claimed he called them “plebs.” Today, however, the police version of what happened has been widely discredited by a series of revelations that has raised questions about the integrity of one of Britain's most important institutions.
“Many of the facts around this complicated case are yet to be fully revealed, “ says Jon Collins, deputy director of the Police Foundation, an independent think tank. “But if it turns out that there has been inappropriate behavior by police officers, then there are certain to be repercussions.”
The saga began a year ago, on Sept. 19, when Mr. Mitchell, newly appointed chief whip of the Conservative party, tried to ride his bicycle out of the main vehicle gate at Downing Street, central London, where the prime minister lives.
The police officers manning the heavy wrought iron gate stopped him, saying he was using the wrong exit. Mitchell admits he swore in frustration. The police, members of the diplomatic protection squad that is a wing of the Metropolitan police, claimed that he had cursed at them and called them “plebs.”
Pleb, a derogatory term meaning a member of the lower classes, is particularly inflammatory in this context. Privately educated and upper class, Mitchell is from the same privileged background as many Conservative ministers, who are routinely accused of being out of touch with ordinary Britons.
The next day the Sun newspaper splashed the headline “Cabinet minister: police are plebs” across its front page. Soon after, the police log book containing the pleb claim was leaked to the Daily Telegraph.
The following month, Mitchell resigned. He had continued to protest that he had not used the pleb word, but the police version of events – helped along by the media – had been widely believed.
In his resignation letter to the prime minister, David Cameron, Mitchell wrote: "The offending comment and the reason for my apology to the police was my parting remark 'I thought you guys were supposed to [expletive deleted] help us.'"
"It was obviously wrong of me to use such bad language and I am very sorry about it....”
But over the past year, as the case against Mitchell has begun to crumble, the police have had more reason to feel regret.
First, surveillance camera footage was found to contradict the police log detailing the incident. The police record said Mitchell's use of expletives had left members of the public “visibly shocked”; the cameras showed that no one but the police had been within earshot.
An investigation by Channel 4 television then found that an email sent to Mitchell's deputy, apparently by a constituent, which described Mitchell yelling obscenities at the gate, was fabricated. Its author turned out to be a member of the police.
Most damaging, however, was the revelation that another group of police officers lied about Mitchell. In October last year, three officials from the Police Federation asked for a “clear the air” meeting at the MP's constituency office. They emerged – on film – calling for Mitchell's resignation, saying he had refused to give a full account of what had taken place at Downing Street.
Mitchell, however, had recorded that meeting. On Tuesday last week, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), the police watchdog, released a transcript of the recording, proving that Mitchell had described in some detail what had happened and strongly denied using the word “pleb.”
Further, an early draft of an investigation report into the Police Federation meeting with Mitchell stated that the three officers involved should face a misconduct hearing. But that recommendation was later removed, said the IPCC.
“Those three police federation reps came out of his meeting ... and, to put it mildly, said things that don't seem to be borne out by the transcript of the meeting,” Damian Green, the government minister in charge of policing told the BBC. “That's disturbing.”
A source close to Mitchell says the events are suggestive of a police force that “thinks it can get away with anything.”
The prime minister and the home secretary have called for the police officers involved to be disciplined. Mitchell is suing the Sun, and his supporters hope he will be reinstated in his old job – or given a better one.
But the reputation of the police has been badly battered.
“This kind of thing unsettles and disturbs people, especially after the whole Hillsborough issue,” says Carolyne James, a former police officer who is now an expert in criminology and policing at the University of Cumbria.
A recent investigation into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, in which in which 96 football spectators were crushed to death in an overcrowded stadium, found that police tried to deflect the blame onto football fans to cover up their own flawed response.
Mr. Collins, from the Police Foundation, adds that although the scandal is a major one, Britons tend to be more affected by their relationships with local police than anything happening nationally.
In the case of Andrew Mitchell, it seems possible the police were pursuing a political agenda.
Only weeks after the incident, members of the Police Federation, who oppose reforms of the police, paraded during the Conservative Party Conference wearing “PC Plebs and Proud” T-shirts. The reforms include recruiting more managers from the private sector and linking pay to performance.
The Crown Prosecution Service is currently deciding if charges should be brought against police officers involved in the original row in Downing Street.
This week, the three police officers who lied will be grilled by a group of MPs in the House of Commons. Such questioning tends to be robust.
“It will be extremely interesting to hear what they have to say” says Ms. James. “They won't be given an easy ride.”
Meanwhile, those who were quick to join in vilifying Mitchell a year ago – including many in his own party – are feeling sheepish.
“We instinctively believed the police and we instinctively believed the media, even at a time when they are under scrutiny,” says Mark Ferguson, editor of Labourlist, a popular left-wing blog, alluding to the phone hacking scandal, in which members of the tabloid press were suspected of having corrupt relationships with police. “We should have been less credulous.”