We probably all realise that there is a crisis of policing in this country. It’s been building for many years but what is driving it and where did it come from?
Policing from the 60s
First a bit about me, I joined Merseyside police in 1968 and did the foot patrol that all bobbies of that era went through. I was in the front line for the Toxteth riots and the Messenger dispute as well as the “Winter of discontent” in the late seventies. I rose through the ranks and eventually transferred to another force before retiring as Deputy Chief Constable.
The crisis in policing is all down to the war between the police and the Tory party. I would tentively trace its origins back to the 1960s. There was an interlude during the Thatcher years where policing experienced a golden age. Numbers expanded and pay and conditions improved. However it seems there was some lingering resentment amongst Tories and the knives were out, particularly for the Chief Officer ranks.
Policing has always had to manage a fine line between accountability and independence. Politicians have always wanted to control the police and there are some embarrassing examples in the fifties where Chief Constables were too close to their governing bodies called “Watch Committees” and some people went to prison. The job of chief officers has always been to keep politicians at arms length yet at the same time recognising that they have to be accountable. Traditionally police chiefs fiercely defended their independence and this annoyed Tory politicians in particular.
One of the jobs of Chief Officers was to juggle the competing demands for policing. Businesses, Traffic, Residential communities, Minority groups, politicians…all demanded services from the police and the priorities used to be determined by Chief Officers who listened to everyone.
In the 1990’s
In the 1990’s the government decided to set a police target for domestic burglary because they believed the police did not give sufficient priority to it. The police responded with more resources into this crime. Some time later I met a local MP who complained the police did not pay enough attention to business crime (he owned several which were vulnerable). I told him that his government had told us to concentrate on domestic burglary and he shouldn’t really complain when we did what we were told by his government. He was unhappy with this response and made a complaint about me.
This was the start of the rot, government set more and more targets and actually distorted what would have been a more local response to local issues. The targets never encompassed everything the police did and indeed there was never a target for murder. The focus on crime ignored that the bulk of police work is not crime related. The lesson is that politicians should keep out of directing police activity particularly when they have a conflict of interest as many of them do. Several Tory MPs described Chief Constables as “The last of the robber barons”. What they meant was that they couldn’t control them.
Conservative Government Policy
Successive Tory Governments tried various means to bring the police under political control, sometimes the police fought them off and this caused more resentment. We now have politicised police forces where they are accountable to party political Police and Crime Commissioners. The Tories have abolished the Chief Police Officers association and indeed anyone who wants to become a Chief Officer has to be approved by the Home office.
Theresa May as the most disastrous Home secretary ever, has literally decimated the police service. She has undermined the credibility of senior officers in a planned campaign and successfully sacked some police chiefs. She has prevented effective policing by curtailing the use of “stop and search” in order to appease minority groups. They have outsourced and privatised many policing services. Most Police helicopters have been scrapped. None of this is an “austerity issue”. There is plenty of money to fund policing if they chose to. Is there a hidden agenda? I believe the Tory plan is to weaken and discredit the Police so the public will accept the privatisation of policing. The ongoing war reaches the occasional peak for example with Plebgate and Damian Green. Such events reinforce the perception that each side is out to get the other.
This blog is getting too long. Where does it lead me?
My response to all this is:
- Get rid of Police and Crime Commissioners and restore the independence of Chief Constables.
- Make police accountable to locally elected police boards.
- Prohibit the outsourcing and privatisation of all policing roles. Reverse those that have occurred.
- Improve the preventative role of the police, for example by restoring stop and search practices.
- Increase police numbers beyond 1995 levels and introduce a formula based on population size.
- Cease using the police to police social media.
- Reinstate the commitment to beat policing.
I could go on, there is much wrong with the criminal justice system, but that maybe best left for another time.
By Mike Speakman