The police have lost their way but the answer isn't to let them be run by meddlers like Prescott
Published in: Daily Mail
As has long been clear, something seems to have gone very badly wrong with the culture of British policing.
While many police officers do a sterling job in preventing crime and promoting public tranquillity, barely a week goes past without some fresh revelation of gross incompetence or allegation of cronyism — or even corruption — by the police.
At the weekend, it was claimed that Richard Branson’s Virgin Media had secretly paid for overtime by Scotland Yard officers investigating a multi-million-pound fraud against one of its companies.
The deal was also said to have guaranteed the Metropolitan Police Authority a ‘cash donation’ of 25 per cent of any compensation awarded to Virgin following a successful conviction.
A few days previously, there was an astonishing postscript to a major court debacle. Last month, the £30 million trial against eight former officers accused of fabricating evidence and perverting the course of justice in the case of the 1988 murder of a Cardiff prostitute collapsed after it was claimed that vital documents had been shredded.
Last week, however, the Independent Police Complaints Commission announced that the documents had not been destroyed after all, but had been stored all the time in the charge of the South Wales police.
Also at the weekend, a Metropolitan Police detective and four Sun journalists were arrested on suspicion of corruption as part of an investigation into police bribery by journalists.
Whatever the truth of such disturbing and fast-multiplying allegations, high-profile cases such as the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence or ten-year-old Damilola Taylor have revealed undoubted gross and systemic incompetence by the police.
Up and down the country, people complain bitterly that the police have effectively abandoned the streets to burglars, thugs and anti-social youths, making their lives a misery.
For their part, the police complain they are being hampered by budget cuts to their numbers. Gloucestershire’s Chief Constable Tony Melville, for example, has claimed these have left his force ‘on a metaphorical cliff edge’.
Yet there is still much duplication and waste, not to mention attachment to unhelpful shift patterns and a Whitehall-driven tick-box culture that has long taken officers off the streets where they are needed.
The Government’s proposed solution to this worrying malaise in the British police is to make them directly accountable to the public through the election of local police commissioners, who will be able to hire and fire chief constables and set broad policing priorities.
The Policing Minister, Nick Herbert, is also promoting a scheme from the Netherlands in which neighbourhoods tell police officers what they want them to do to cut crime. While Mr Herbert’s diagnosis of the problem is well-founded, his solution is unlikely to solve the problem and may well make it even worse.
Indeed, his claim that he will ‘put the public in the driving seat’ on policing suggests that, alarmingly, he does not grasp that the key characteristic of professionalism is independence.
Any police force doing its job properly will necessarily have close links with its local community to know what is going on. That is very different, however, from being under the thumb of local vested interests.
For people who want to tell the police what to do will most likely have hobby-horses of their own. They will not be on top of the big picture of crime patterns or policing needs in the area that requires professional policing expertise to evaluate.
Certainly, many police forces have signally failed to make those connections and gather the intelligence necessary to prevent crime and maintain public order. That failure is due to a dismaying erosion of the ethic of policing, a decline that goes back several decades.
Many factors contributed to this demoralisation. There was the profound loss of confidence arising from the corruption cases and miscarriages of justice in the seventies and sighties; the consequent mistaken belief that academic qualifications mattered more than policing experience; and the shattering impact of the charge of ‘institutional racism’ by the Macpherson report following the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
The final blow was administered by the politicisation of the police through the Whitehall-driven ‘targets’ culture.
But now, Mr Herbert’s well-intentioned reforms threaten to replace political control from above by political control from below. For elections are invariably hijacked by political or vested interests of one kind or another.
Of course, the occasional maverick may be elected — such as Colonel Tim Collins, the former Army officer famed for his rousing eve-of-battle speech during the first Iraq war and who has now thrown his beret into the police commissioner ring. But many of these commissioners will be representing political parties.
An indication that the post may become a platform for political retreads was provided by the news that Labour’s former deputy leader, John Prescott, might try to become the police commissioner in Hull.
Indeed, Labour are banking on winning all the commissioner jobs in the North and across Wales, while the Tories assume they will win those in the South of England.
So much for the claim that these police commissioners will be independent tribunes of the people! Moreover, what legitimacy will they have if they are elected on a turnout of, say, only 20 or 30 per cent?
The whole policy is based on a misunderstanding of what happened to policing in America, where the transformation of New York into a law-abiding city was put down to the genius of its then mayor Rudy Giuliani.
In fact, this achievement was due to the professional talents of the city’s chief police officer, Bill Bratton, whom Giuliani — to his credit — promoted and endorsed.
In many areas, however, the fact that America’s police forces are under the thumb of local politicians has only helped foster corruption rather than public order. In Britain, by contrast, the independence of the police from politics was, until fairly recently, one of the bulwarks of liberty.
The truth is that what is needed above all is to get politics out of policing, not put even more of it in.
There is nothing wrong with the current structure of control over the police, which was designed to ensure they were as free from political interference as possible.
The problem is not structural but cultural — a profound and catastrophic loss of professional nerve.
Accordingly, it can be solved only by nothing less than a wholesale cultural change that will restore police professionalism and morale.
However, the police do not operate in a vacuum. And their demoralisation reflects in turn a society that has lost its nerve.
The police are famously the thin blue line that protects a society by enforcing the law and promoting justice.
But since society itself is now governed by a perverse political correctness that gives hate crime priority over burglary, a human rights culture that turns right and wrong on their heads and a political establishment that believes enforcing the law against drugs is the problem rather than drug use itself, is it any wonder the police have lost the plot?
The British police were once the most effective, most upright and least coercive in the world. It is not elected commissioners that we need but a restoration of our lost ethic of policing.
And that, in turn, depends on society recovering its own lost values.