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Four police officers.

Line of Duty: two ex-anti-corruption officers on how the police actually catch ‘bent coppers’

Season six of BBC crime drama Line of Duty has gripped the nation as Anti-Corruption Unit 12 (AC-12) inch ever closer to identifying the character in charge of all the “bent coppers”, only known as “H”. They’ve been chasing this elusive figure since series one, which aired nearly ten years ago. Along the way, there have been undercover operations, shoot-outs, illicit relationships and so many corrupt officers.

As fans of the show, we have been gripped by the dramatic twists and turns. Line of Duty is certainly brilliant TV. However, as experts in anti-corruption, as well as former police officers and Head of Professional Standards and the Anti-Corruption Unit within Leicestershire Police, we know that it’s not the most accurate picture of what it’s really like clamping down on corruption and weeding out “bent coppers”.

Two years after Line of Duty first aired in 2012, the College of Policing published a code of ethics, which ensures that everyone feels supported and able to do the right thing. In this, officers and staff can be confident challenging colleagues, regardless of their rank, role or position, should their conduct fall below the expected standard.

When an officer’s behaviour is challenged, a Professional Standards Department (PSD) gets involved. Every force has one but the title varies slightly.

Investigations will involve experienced accredited officers and staff investigators. They will often work alongside crime analysts, vetting experts and administrative staff to support the necessarily transparent, bureaucratic and often legalistic processes as set out by law. PSD’s can also draw upon specialist support from the National Crime Agency, Crown Prosecution Service and dedicated legal advice. Similar to AC-12, there is generally a senior police officer in command of the investigation, including corruption investigations.

However, unlike AC-12, there are no gun-toting, armed officers embedded within PSDs and most investigations don’t concern police officer involvement in organised crime groups.

Doing the right thing

Line of Duty is a variation of the “police procedural” genre, albeit written as a thrilling examination of the morally grey area of police corruption.

The show is reported to use actual police officers to advise on procedure and police jargon. So you would think that it would get the approval of the force. However, the Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, has said she was “outraged by the level of casual and extreme corruption that was being portrayed”. And Home Office data supports Dick’s claim about inaccurate levels of corruption portrayed in Line of Duty.

In a single episode, there are usually several examples of potential corruption. Whereas in the year ending March 31 2019, the thousands of daily interactions by 128,000 police officers in England and Wales led to only 136 criminal investigations, mostly from internal allegations. Without minimising the impact of corruption and abuse of power, the additional scrutiny and transparency offered by the Independent Office for Police Conduct backs up these numbers.

Some things about the show are more accurate. While the menacing notion of “H” is fictional, police officers and staff can become involved in organised crime and criminality. Sometimes this is through misguided and unethical loyalty to bosses or colleagues, or sometimes under duress. Such incidences are common in Line of Duty, as many of the corrupt officers are blackmailed into cooperation.

Three police officers.
Anti-Corruption Unit 12 in Line of Duty season 6. BBC/World Productions/Steffan Hill

Recognising that colleagues and friends need to be investigated can place a huge ethical and emotional burden on investigators. However, professionalism should override personal feelings. So despite the emotional reality of Line of Duty, there is much less shouting and (hopefully) no shooting.

The letter of the law

While Superintendent Hastings asserts that AC-12 follows the letter of the law, actual anti-corruption investigators need to demonstrate a more procedurally just and transparent approach. This requires an ethically objective investigative mindset. Demonstrating and encouraging an ethical culture means more than simply catching “bent coppers”.

In the real police service, today, police corruption is often identified by peers and anti-corruption investigators will work to build trust and confidence in the investigative process, instead of storming in and acting quite antagonistically, like the members of AC-12. Rather, evidence is gathered quietly using conventional investigative techniques.

Covert investigations and tactics that may be used are exactly that: covert. Investigators demonstrate the forensic skills of analysts, rather than being firearms officers. Their role is to identify physical and digital patterns of behaviour.

Investigations are structured, with recorded policy decisions and rationales for disclosure and audit. Interviews are planned and adhere to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which reduces oppressive practice and perverse outcomes. This professional mindset is more likely to identify clues and make analytical connections. Admittedly, this real practice would undermine Line of Duty’s dramatic conspiracies and wouldn’t make for such thrilling entertainment.

Having considered the evidence, as two anti-corruption experts we can conclude that Line of Duty’s AC-12 has crossed the line, breached the code of ethics and failed to diligently carry out their duties. Arguably, the approach taken by Jenny from Gogglebox, who diligently takes notes of the show’s twists and turns, is more likely to hold the key to solving the mystery that has so avidly gripped the nation. Why? Because Jenny’s painstaking note-taking and hypothesising is probably far closer to the reality of how we catch “bent coppers”.

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