29 November 2009

Arrested development

I must confess to being slightly concerned this week, waking up to hear on the radio Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Denis O'Connor, call for a return to traditional British policing tactics and methods. He was answering questions about his report on the enquiry into policing of the G20 summit earlier in the year but, in my sleepy delirium, I had visions of a return to those halcyon days of the 1970s: "sus" laws, racist beatings, the Birmingham Six and the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, when recorded interviews and PACE seemed futuristic nonsense.

What Sir Denis meant was policing by consent, endorsing "accountability, approachability, impartiality and minimum force" in the way the fuzz goes about its business, rather than some of the recent innovative techniques of 'kettling', using the edge of a riot shield as a blade, and taking numbers off uniforms to prevent identification. The most damning part of his report addresses the lack of clarity and leadership over the approach to policing large scale protests, such as the G20. And although this is where the headlines are made, and the most newsworthy copy is filed, it's actually away from such events that policing in the UK faces its greatest challenges in repairing breaches in the public trust.

In another, less publicised report produced on the same day, it was showed the numbers of stop-and-searches being carried out still far in excess of those of just two years ago, from a peak back in April. Worryingly for politicians, these numbers included a large proportion of nice, respectable, middle-class people who would no more commit a crime than commit Harri-Kari. Just the sort of people, however, who would, and do, vote. Shadow Security Minister Baroness Neville-Jones said: "Inappropriate and ever wider use of these powers is one of the surest ways to lose public support in the fight against terrorism".

Apparently the surest way to win public support, in her book, is to have elected Police Commissioners, as the next day Chris Grayling, Shadow Home Secretary, outlined plans to make the Mayor of London the elected Commission of the Met, doing away with the Metropolitan Police Association (MPA) that does the job today. I don't think you have to be a fan of The Wire to see the possible disadvantages of a system of putting control of the police in the hands of elected politicians - not least because the present incumbent in the role is someone in whose hands I wouldn't trust the key to my drinks cabinet, never mind the safety of eight million Londoners.

I actually have some experience of how this might work; earlier in the year, I was doing some recruitment work with the London Development Agency (LDA), part of the triumvirate responsible for running London along with the Mayor's office and the London Assembly. In the middle of April, I took a call from the Head of HR at the LDA about a screaming urgent project to get a job web portal for Londoners up and running by the end of the month. When I asked why the tearing hurry to meet an impossible deadline, I was told rather sheepishly that the orders came direct from the Mayor's office: Boris wanted something in place for the anniversary of his election on 1 May to show he was tackling unemployment in the capital. Never mind the quality, just build the bloody thing.

The public support for the police is largely built upon wholesale ignorance about exactly what they do and how they work. The overwhelming majority of people will encounter a real policeman maybe twice in a lifetime, and certainly not from the wrong end of a riot shield; no matter how many column inches are written in The Guardian, there is enough of the population that will instinctively believe that protesters are troublemakers who deserve any kicking they receive from the police.

If, however, the public come increasingly into contact with the force of law and order through alienating instruments such as random stop-and-search, false arrests to increase the DNA database, speed cameras for minor infringements and Strict Liability policing (see here for a recent hair-raising example of this little-known legal nicety), they will start to question that trust. Which is why the one thing the public always claims to want - more "bobbies on the beat" - is the one thing a politician will promise but never deliver. Just in case a voter actually comes across one.

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