LONDON — London’s police department was already dealing with a crisis of trust amid allegations of misogyny, racism and bullying when it became embroiled in a political drama. Last month, it opened an investigation into parties at Downing Street during lockdown that could determine Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political fate.
The last thing the department needed was more uncertainty. Then its chief, Cressida Dick, stepped down under intense pressure.
“It comes at the most dreadful time for the organization,” said Zoë Billingham, a former inspector for an independent police watchdog group in Britain, referring to the force, the Metropolitan Police Service, and to Ms. Dick’s resignation last week. “And it’s in the midst of investigating the prime minister for a potential crime. You almost can’t imagine a conceivably worse situation.”
Ms. Dick’s resignation further exposed the fraught political moment in which the London police service finds itself while it is also under heavy pressure to tackle an internal culture that a report last month said was rife with sexism and racism.
The force’s ability to address those issues now seems to be caught in the middle of a political fight between two powerful, ambitious figures in opposing parties.
On one side is Priti Patel, the Conservative home secretary, who oversees policing nationally and who had long stood behind Ms. Dick, supporting her plan for overhauls. On the other is Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London and a member of the opposition Labour Party, who pressured Ms. Dick to step down, making it clear he no longer had confidence in her leadership.
The calls for Ms. Dick’s resignation began early last year after the kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old London woman, by a police officer. The killing fueled a national conversation about problems with policing, and late last year, the government announced an inquiry into the force.
Ms. Billingham said a report two weeks ago from the official police watchdog that laid bare deeply troubling messages between officers in one central London police station was the final tipping point in a long series of issues that had eroded public trust in the force.
The report detailed racism and xenophobia, with messages exchanged between officers mocking the Black Lives Matter movement and non-Christian religions, and containing deeply misogynistic comments about rape, homophobic comments and insults about people with disabilities. Nine of the people involved are still serving as police officers, and two had been promoted in the years since the messages were sent.
“You couldn’t imagine this being a conversation being held in any walk of life, let alone policing,” Ms. Billingham said. “The homophobia, the racism and misogyny. What I found really disturbing was the glorification of domestic abuse — it was just unforgivable.”
Mr. Khan had pressured Ms. Dick to step down soon after the revelations.
Now the process begins to appoint Ms. Dick’s replacement. The commissioner is technically appointed by the queen, but she will accept a recommendation from Ms. Patel, the home secretary.
But as the commissioner’s post is both a city role and a national one — the Metropolitan Police Service oversees counterterrorism policing and has other national duties — Ms. Patel is legally required to take into account the views of the mayor of London.
A spokesman for the Home Office said in a statement, “The Home Secretary is committed to selecting the right leader for the largest police force in the country, who will focus on reducing violence in the city, tackling the abuse of women and girls, ridding our streets of drugs, knives and weapons, saving lives and protecting the public from those who wish to do them harm.”
Ms. Patel thanked Ms. Dick for her service, highlighting the fact that she was the first women to lead the force but acknowledging that “policing culture, conduct, attitudes and behaviors have rightly all come under scrutiny.” The new leader “must tackle these institutional issues that have brought great shame on elements of policing,” she added.
But Ms. Patel’s priorities for the new commissioner may conflict with those of Mr. Khan, the London mayor, who has taken a harder stance, pointing to “deep cultural issues” within the city’s police force.
The opposition Labour Party has been highly critical of Ms. Patel. Yvette Cooper, the opposition lawmaker responsible for policing, said in an interview with the BBC that the home secretary had been “silent” on policing for the last year, and called on the government to do more to make way for reforms.
Mr. Khan, in an editorial last weekend in The Observer, said that he was “deeply concerned by how public trust and confidence in London’s police service has been shattered so badly” by the recent watchdog report and “a succession of serious incidents.”
He said he would not support any candidate who did not “clearly demonstrate that they understand the scale of the cultural problems within the Met and the urgency with which they must be addressed.”
Policing experts agree that it will be critical for the new leader to identify and urgently address the problematic culture.
Ms. Billingham said that most officers were doing good jobs but that it was crucial for the incoming leader to accept the scale of the problem and to create a culture in which misogyny, racism, homophobia and bullying were not tolerated.
Janet Hills, who worked as a Metropolitan Police detective sergeant for three decades and led London’s federation of Black officers before becoming president of the National Black Police Association, said that a troubling culture was able to thrive under Ms. Dick because there was a disconnect between those in power and lower ranking officers.
“There is no understanding of what is happening on the ground floor — those people behaving that way have been allowed to do it unchallenged,” Ms. Hills said. “And that for me is where it had fallen down for this current commissioner.”
Crucially, Ms. Hills said, Ms. Dick treated the racism within the force as an issue of the past and failed to address the clear problems that had come to light. Ms. Hills pointed to the 1999 Macpherson Report, a groundbreaking inquiry after the murder of an 18-year-old Black man named Stephen Lawrence in 1993, that labeled the handling of the death as institutionally racist. She said that Ms. Dick had acted as if the force had moved on from those times.
“But we have not,” Ms. Hills said, “because we’ve never addressed it.”