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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The British Policing Poisoned-Chalice Debate Begins

The British Policing Poisoned-Chalice Debate Begins

How Much Equipment Should Police Deploy? - Edward Betts

Traditional bobby-on-the-beat policing died years ago under a tide of social engineering. Now, who’d be a cop? Is it a job few will now touch for any money?

The ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ (1950s TV police series) style of consensual policing, with jovial, kindly and trustworthy walking coppers keeping everyone safe, vanished long before August 2011’s riots. Some think problems began when the police ‘force’ became the police ‘service’.

News on just one day (21 August) from one national newspaper (The Sunday Telegraph) illustrates the problems faced by those policing contemporary Britain, the policed and the taxpayers paying for it.

All Bad News Stories

The paper reported the search for the new chief of the Metropolitan police as ‘in chaos’: government officials persuading officers to apply. The deadline was put back so others could be found after only one applied for the vacancy that arose following the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson in the wake of the scandal over links between senior Met officers and News International.

There was a piece about Stephen House, Chief Constable of Strathclyde, who had suddenly become front-runner for the post, following his Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) success in tackling Glasgow’s gang culture. Aggressive, outspoken policing was said to be the heart of his success in Scotland’s largest force. Would that be better received than American ‘super cop‘ and street gang expert Bill Bratton taking over, following success in New York and Los Angeles?

Jason Lewis reported that leading police officers have set up ‘a national masonic lodge where they can meet in secret, in defiance of fears about the secret society’s influence on the criminal justice system’. Without judging masons or individual officers’ desire to participate, the fact is that freemasonry sometimes undermines trust in the impartiality of police and judiciary.

Lewis reported in a separate story that over two hundred Met police officers and support staff have been caught ‘accessing the highly sensitive Police National Computer for their own ends’. The database holds names, personal descriptions of people, vehicles, property and crimes. The use of the computer to fight crime is controversial, but campaigners opposed to a big-brother surveillance society were alarmed at the abuse of supposedly secure systems.

There was a comment piece from Janet Daley about politicising riots. Either they were from a deep social malaise beginning in the 60s and rioters simply copied bankers’ and MPs’ greed; or what happened is: ‘the great tacit agreement that held civic life together’ has been blown apart. She said the unspoken confederacy and certainty between police, parents, teachers, judges and politicians was gone; all had to work to restore confidence.

Finally, the lead editorial called for the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to ‘be open to reform’ after his two predecessors left under clouds of either political proximity or poor judgements. That’s a lot of policing stories for one edition of a paper.

The Problems

The Macpherson Report (1999) into the 1993 killing of black London teenager Stephen Lawrence by white boys, found the ‘institutionally racist’ Metropolitan Police guilty of incompetence. It provoked discussion about race relations and policing, and there were some changes in police procedures.

There are periodic claims of systemic corruption in the police, many catalogued with names and dates and quotes, outcomes from enquiries and information about what happened to individuals at Police Corruption, a campaigning website. Some of the cases are from the USA, but most are British-grown.

Police are sometimes criticised for the policy of investigating every report by anybody ‘offended’, however nonsensical the allegation, even leading to women breast-feeding being made to feel like criminals. This led in July 2008 to the then Labour government spelling out that mothers are protected under the Sexual Discrimination Act when breast-feeding in public places, whatever the baby’s age.

The penal system is perceived as too soft by many. A YouGov poll published in The Sunday Times (21 August) suggested 48% believed harsh sentences meted out to August rioters and looters are ‘about right’, but 31% said they were too soft. Yet not all judges are themselves innocent of human traits they encounter in their courts.

Deputy District Judge David Messenger called by police ‘the worst detainee they had dealt with’ was fined for behaving like a drunken lout and damaging a police cell (Daily Telegraph, 30 Sept 2003). Former Crown Court Judge Bruce Macmillan was fined and disqualified for drink-driving offences (BBC News, 12 November 2009). Judge Beatrice Bolton was fined for failing to keep a dog under control (JournalLive, 1 June 2011).

The Answers?

All the mishaps, misjudgements, corrupt few are the minority. Most citizens accept police in general do a difficult job well. Still, the Government has proposed measures to reform policing. The most controversial is locally-elected commissioners. The Eastern Daily Press ran a campaign against the very idea through August 2011, arguing: ‘if it ain’t broke (in Norfolk), don’t fix it’.

As riot dust settled and debate began in earnest about policing, David Stringer wrote in The Guardian that the cherished culture of British restraint (police didn’t fire a shot in the riots) and low-key, courteous approaches to problems were coming under pressure as budget cuts were confirmed.

He quoted policing and criminology expert/author Maurice Punch, who said Britain was ‘at a turning point’ as people asked what kind of policing do we want? The debate is urgent, with London’s 2012 Olympic Games less than a year away, and continuing threats from terrorists, cyber-criminals and future violent street outbreaks ever-present dangers.

Time is on nobody’s side. Yet decisions cannot be taken lightly, as the shape of policing for the next twenty years could be at stake. Are British cops too soft or too harsh? Do they have enough powers, or too many? Does Britain need dedicated riot squads? Water cannon and dyes? Curfews? More prisons? More arming of police? Should politicos direct and criticise police tactics?

Can police budgets be balanced and better deployment used? Does the nation need more consultations/consultants? More enquiries, even a Royal Commission? Are they managers’ way of dealing with a crisis? Is this to be kicked into the long grass and hope for the best?

The answers are more questions, but unless British people ask and discuss honestly and openly, things may not get better.

First published on Suite 101, 21 August 2011, as the riots died down and the enquiries began.

Image: How Much Equipment Should Police Deploy? – Edward Betts

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