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City of London's 'bobbies' charged with corruption

The famed London bobby - world-famous symbol of unarmed rectitude and law-enforcement? Or tarnished with corruption reaching into high places in the force?

The City of London police force, 880 men strong patrolling London's financial district, remains a legendary body. But, like other British institutions in this time of ferment and change, it is having to confront challenges to its image and authority.

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In 1978, a massive probe was launched into allegations of corruption by informers. It was a script that could have been lifted straight from a television series.

So far (STR)4 million ($6.8 million) has been spent looking into more than 200 allegations. It all began after three big robberies in London, and widened almost at once. Soon it involved 92 investigators with their own computer.

Controversially, they were from outside London, under the command of the chief constable of Dorset. City of London police reacted furiously, claiming the entire probe was a costly waste of time by men with little experience of life in the big city.

Four times the probe, named Operation Countryman, tried to achieve convictions. Four times it failed, although two men were dismissed, one resigned , and a fourth remains under suspicion.

Now, on July 20, it has succeeded. A detective chief inspector with 23 years on the City of London force, Philip Cuthbert, was jailed for three years by an Old Bailey jury on charges of selling bail freedom for (STR)10,000 (about $17, 000) a time and for watering down evidence. Sgt. John Goldbourn was sentenced to two years.

If Cuthbert informs on others, the probe could widen dramatically. If he stays silent, probe officials have told British newsmen they may have to yield to pressure and go home.

Probe officials have leaked to the press numerous allegations of corruption in high places that they say are difficult to prove in court.

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''Make no mistake,'' one officer told the Daily Telegraph newspaper, ''law and order has been and still is for sale in London.'' Officials allege a network of corrupt officers known as ''the firm within the firm.''

City of London police retort that the probe officers are out of their depth and that corruption is usually dealt with by the police disciplinary code. Officially, corruption in London police is below 0.5 percent, among the lowest in the world.

However, allegations continue. The Cuthbert and Goldbourn jury took only two hours after a trial of six weeks to reach a guilty verdict. Judge James Miskin QC commented in passing sentence:

''Justice in England has for countless years been admired throughout the whole world. Corruption by police officers strikes at its very roots.''

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