Is the Metropolitan Police institutionally corrupt?

Photo credit: Tadas Petrokase / Unsplash

Professor Robert Barrington reviews three reports into the Met, and finds that there is confusion around the term corruption – and whether the Met is or is not a corrupt institution. 

Last week’s Casey Review on London’s Metropolitan Police force mentions the word ‘corrupt’ or ‘corruption’ twenty-two times in its 363 pages, most of which are incidental – for example, noting there is an ‘Anti-Corruption and Abuse Hotline’. What follows here is a detailed discussion on definitions, specific words, and some key phrases from recent reports on London’s policing. Switch channels now if that is not your cup of tea. To make it easier, you could just read the summary and conclusion, which are at the start rather than the end. 


  • The Casey Review says that the Morgan Panel says the Met are ‘institutionally corrupt’. 
  • The Morgan panel actually says that there was ‘institutional corruption’ in the Met. 
  • The HMICFRS review of the Morgan Report said that Report had concluded that the Met is ‘institutionally corrupt’ but the HMICFRS itself concluded ‘we would not describe the MPS as institutionally corrupt’ following an earlier report that concluded ‘corruption is not endemic in the police services’. 
  • What does it all mean? 


  • It’s actually quite hard to work out whether the three independent reviews are or are not saying that the Met is institutionally corrupt, and what they might mean by that. In any event, they appear to disagree with each other. 
  • There seems to be no clear reason why new definitions need to be created by these reports, and that further confuses the picture. 
  • Contradictory terminology is used apparently interchangeably. 
  • It is unclear whether these reviews have been carried out by those who are expert in institutional corruption, or familiar with the academic literature on institutional corruption. 
  • Problem definition and analysis are considered as key by those who propose or design anti-corruption solutions; muddled definitions can lead to muddled solutions. 


From the anti-corruption perspective, the several reports on the Met have a confusion over terminology. To scholars in the field of corruption studies, as in any field, certain words mean certain things. Legal scholars also have their own vocabulary around corruption, but by and large there is a convergence of view over key terms. The reports on the Met use a number of terms, apparently interchangeably, and without apparent reference to what they mean in various areas of academic literature. 

  • We can distinguish between ‘transactional’ and ‘systemic’ corruption. Transactional is fairly simple: an individual act of corruption, such as the payment of a bribe. Systemic corruption ‘[d]escribes environments where corrupt practices have become commonplace, institutionalised, or normalised‘ (Dobson Phillips, 2023). Neither of these terms are used in the reports, though they are both implied. 
  • ‘Institutional corruption’ is a loaded term, with lots of debate about what it really means. Theories around this have been developed since about 2011, and one of the better known definitions is that of Harvard professor Laurence Lessig: ‘… manifest when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness‘ (Lessig, 2013).  
  • The variant of ‘institutionally corrupt’ might seem to mean the same as systemic corruption, but may also be used in the sense of an institution – i.e., senior personnel – colluding with transactional corruption; it is an open question as to whether this is the same as institutional corruption, particularly as used in the three reports on the Met. 
  • ‘Endemic’ corruption may be considered akin to systemic corruption. 

Why it matters 

  • Police forces are prone to corruption; we know this from regular research and investigations, from the Knapp Commission to TI’s Global Corruption Barometer.
  • Police are the most immediate and high-impact point of connection between ordinary people and the power of the state; police officers have sufficient entrusted power that they can use their personal discretion to deprive individuals of their liberty. 
  • The Met is a large and influential organisation with a long history of problems, but apparently with a difficulty accepting that it has problems (even after the coruscating Casey Review, the Commissioner would not accept the tag of ‘institutional’ to describe its problems – and that was probably not because of quibbles about definitions). 
  • Problem diagnosis is critical to solutions.  This is well captured in a seminal paper by Paul Heywood (2017), who describes the need to focus (both on what type of corruption is at play, and in what unit of analysis – country, sector, etc) and to derive policy recommendations from a satisfactory analysis. 
  • The independent inspectorate HMCFRS is about to undertake a new review into ‘the police service’s progress on vetting, misconduct and counter-corruption’, which is a timely reminder that any future reviews and reports should be on a proper footing – with a thorough understanding of what corruption means in this context, and which terms do and do not apply.

Analysis – Casey Review, Morgan Report, HMICFRS review 

The Casey Review was not set up to examine corruption specifically, but it is unambiguous in its conclusions about the areas it was examining:  

p.257: ‘The Review finds the Met to be institutionally homophobic’. 

p.285: ‘The Review finds the Met to be institutionally sexist and misogynistic’.

p.329: ‘We have found institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police’. 

It is not clear whether there is a distinction between ‘institutionally’ (homophobic, sexist, misogynistic) and ‘institutional’ (racism), but in terms of corruption, that may be a relevant distinction, as we will see. 

Perhaps the Casey Review’s clearest link between the subjects it examines and corruption comes in the section (p.278) on ‘Abuse of Position for a Sexual Purpose’.  This contains the chilling assertion that: 

‘As we have noted, the fact that police officers are given powers over their fellow citizens makes it likely that policing will attract people who want to abuse that power.’

In other words, a classic abuse of power or abuse of office definition. 

This is in line with other reports that link sexual activity to abuse of position -  in the words of Transparency International ‘[s]exual extortion or “sextortion” occurs when those entrusted with power use it to sexually exploit those dependent on that power‘.

Although the Casey Review does not deal substantively with the issue of corruption, it does refer back to ‘The Report of the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel‘ on the subject of corruption.  The Casey Review mentions this as (page 231): “the report [which] declared the force ‘institutionally corrupt’…”.  

This struck me as interesting, as I did not recall the reference to the Met being ‘institutionally corrupt’ from the Morgan Report. In fact, on checking, I only find reference to ‘institutional corruption’ – although in a report of such length – 1,256 pages - it is possible that, even with various searches, I have missed the reference to the Met being ‘institutionally corrupt’.  Suffice to say, if it is there, it is hard to find. 

This raises the question of whether there is a difference, intentional or unintentional, between ‘institutional corruption’ and being ‘institutionally corrupt’. The Morgan Report may not say the Met was ‘institutionally corrupt,’ but is clear that there was ‘institutional corruption’.  For example, Para 60 of the introduction: 

‘Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit and constitutes a form of institutional corruption’

The Morgan Report talks at length about different forms of corruption, especially the cover ups in and around the original investigation of Morgan’s murder, as well as corrupt relationships with the press. It was not able to find evidence of widespread corruption that may have led to the murder itself, and ultimately its findings on corruption therefore relate mostly to the cover up. There is a strong emphasis on ‘lack of candour’ in the Morgan Report, and in subsequent briefings and statements, and it seems that it the absence of being able to prove other forms of corruption (always an unenviable task), this was something provable on which the Panel could pin the label corruption. 

In fact, the Morgan panel’s terms of reference specifically included ‘the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice and the failure to confront that corruption’ and the Report has a whole chapter on the subject  – ‘Chapter 10: Corruption: Venality to lack of candour’.

For reasons that are not stated, the Morgan Panel decided to create its own definition of corruption, in section 2.2.  This might be considered a bit risky, as there is a danger that a definition might be retrofitted to the facts to prove that they were corrupt. In this case, although the Morgan Report definition draws broadly on other existing definitions and rules-based approaches (for example, the notions of dishonesty, benefit, omission, proper exercise of powers), there is an inescapable sense that the Panel has struggled with the interplay between what it senses is corruption and how it therefore needs to define corruption. Its rules-based approach is consolidated by a list of nine ‘failings’ (paras 26 and 27) which the report states constitute corruption if they are not incompetence. Interestingly, there are a number of existing definitions which might have done the job, encapsulating many if not all of the notions that the Morgan Panel definition is aiming to cover. The difference is perhaps that most definitions are shorter and more general, and thus widely applicable – the Morgan Report definition is unusually detailed and seems very specific to the circumstances that the Panel was examining. The Morgan Report definition, plus the failings, comprises fifteen points – it is complex and frankly a bit hard to understand: 

“The Panel has adopted a broad definition of corruption for the purposes of its work. The definition below is based on the key elements of dishonesty and benefit, and allows for the involvement of a variety of actors and a variety of forms of benefit: 

The improper behaviour by action or omission: 
i. by a person or persons in a position of power or exercising powers, such as 
police officers; 
ii. acting individually or collectively; 
iii. with or without the involvement of other actors who are not in a position of 
power or exercising powers; 

for direct or indirect benefit : 
iv. of the individual(s) involved; or 
v. for a cause or organisation valued by them; or 
vi. for the benefit or detriment of others; 
such that a reasonable person would not expect the powers to be exercised for 
the purpose of achieving that benefit or detriment. 

The Panel has used this definition to consider the conduct of the police officers involved in the investigations of the murder of Daniel Morgan”.

What is notable about this definition is that it covers very fully the notional of transactional corruption – individuals or groups of officers acting corruptly – but does not really help in an understanding of institutional corruption. Yet that is the big charge that the Morgan Report pins on the Met: 

Para 242: “When failings in police investigations are combined with unjustified reassurances rather than candour on the part of the Metropolitan Police, this may constitute institutional corruption. The Metropolitan Police’s culture of obfuscation and a lack of candour is unhealthy in any public service. Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit. In the Panel’s view, this constitutes a form of institutional corruption”.

Para 292: “These cumulative failures amount to institutional corruption on the part of all three organisations’ – referring also to the failures of others to investigate the Met“. 

Chapter 10 concludes with a further complexity that there are “symptoms of institutional corruption“: 

Para 502: “The Metropolitan Police placed the reputation of the organisation above the need for accountability and transparency. The lack of candour and the repeated failure to take a fresh, thorough and critical look at past failings are all symptoms of institutional corruption, which prioritises institutional reputation over public accountability. Most people become police officers to serve the public, not to engage in corrupt activities. They do very difficult and, at times, dangerous work without compromising their integrity. It is accepted that the management of policing is a very complex process, but there has been a failure over decades to tackle police corruption effectively and to resource anti-corruption work properly“.

The Morgan Report paints a bleak picture of corruption and the Met, but ultimately one that is confusing. There is a form of institutional corruption, symptoms of institutional corruption and – due primarily to a lack of candour – there is institutional corruption. But is that in the sense the Lessig meant, or in some other sense that is not defined?  Is the Met in fact ‘institutionally corrupt’ in the same sense that the Casey Review claims it is ‘institutionally misogynist’ – and again, what does that mean? And why do both the Casey Review and the HMICFRS review state that the Morgan Report said the Met was ‘institutionally corrupt’ when it does not use that term? 

A further difference from the Casey Review is that the Morgan Panel emphasises that “most people become police officers to serve the public” whereas the Casey Review takes the less optimistic view that “the fact that police officers are given powers over their fellow citizens makes it likely that policing will attract people who want to abuse that power“. It is a change of emphasis rather than scale, but an important change – not least because it gives a sense that there may be a higher likelihood of institutional corruption in the Lessig sense (diversion of purpose) if police officers are attracted to the Met for the purposes of corruption. 

After the Morgan report was published, the Home Secretary commissioned the independent inspectorate HMICFRS to undertake an “inspection of the Metropolitan Police Service’s counter-corruption arrangements and other matters related to the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel” which was published in March 2022. This specifically addressed the question of ‘institutional corruption’ but seems to make no distinction between that and being ‘institutionally corrupt’: 

The institutional corruption label 

The Panel concluded that the MPS is “institutionally corrupt”. In essence, the Panel defined this type of corruption as one where an organisation protects its reputation, rather than where any individual benefits from a corrupt act….we would not describe the MPS as institutionally corrupt based upon the evidence we have seen. This should not for a moment be understood to be a finding that there are not serious areas of concern which have been, and continue to be, present in the MPS. It is essential that the MPS should be more open to criticism and prepared to change where necessary, including by implementing our recommendations. A further failure to do so (without good reason) may well justify the label of institutional corruption in due course“. 

It is unclear from this why the Met/MPS might not be labelled as institutionally corrupt at the time of the report’s writing, but if it does not change, might later be labelled as institutionally corrupt. To add to the confusion, an earlier review by the predecessor body, HMIC, had concluded that “[c]orruption is not endemic in the police service“, introducing the additional concept of endemic corruption. 

Inevitably, those who write such reviews are unlikely to be experts in corruption, or well versed in the copious literature that surrounds such terms. Notably, the HMICFRS does not have a definition of corruption in its list of Definitions and interpretations (though it is surely elsewhere), although it does have a literature review from 2015.  This review summarises the thinking at that time on police corruption but uses the term ‘institutionalised corruption’ in its conclusion with no related definition. 

What does this tell us? 

Given the analysis by Heywood (2017) and others about the importance of problem definition, the precise use of language for this complex field might be helpful both to understand what is happening and to plan ways forward.  However, the least that might be expected from the authors of such reports is a) that important terms are defined if they are to be used b) they are used consistently.   

What we can see from these reports on the Met is that no real distinction is being drawn between transactional and systemic corruption, and there is therefore a confused notion of what is meant by institutional/institutionalised corruption or institutionally corrupt – and this is even without any analysis of the territory into which Lessing draws the definitions when he talks of “diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose” and “weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness“. It is a sobering thought that if the Lessig thinking on trust were applied, the Casey Review would essentially be staying that there is institutional corruption in the Met. That would seem to argue in favour of really fundamental reform, of the type seen in Northern Ireland, or even Georgia. 

Moreover, if definitions, like that of the Morgan Report, are essentially based on rules (rational choice), then it is likely that solutions will be built around rules, enforcement and incentives. But the Casey Report, looking at other areas than corruption, suggests that the wider problem is one of culture – to which a norms-based approach might therefore be applied. 

In sum: new definitions do not need to be created. Such reports do not need to contain a mini-treatise on the intellectual and historical underpinnings of the definition they use. But we do need to know what is meant by the terms that are being used, and for the analysis to make sense, such terms need to be used consistently. If existing definitions had been used, and used clearly, we would have a much clearer idea of how to view corruption in the Met, and therefore what needs to be done. 

Further reading

Dobson Phillips, R. 2023. “Systemic corruption”, in Dictionary of Corruption. Newcastle: Agenda Publishing (forthcoming).

Heywood, P. 2017. “Rethinking Corruption: Hocus-Pocus, Locus and Focus”. The Slavonic and East European Review 95(1): 21–48. 

Lessig, L. 2013. “’Institutional corruption’ defined”. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 41(3): 553-555. 

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