Kevin Meagher looks at the biggest problems for the police to deal with over the coming year
The first major review in half a century of its strategy and tactics will put the British system of policing under the microscope as never before during 2012.
Established by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, the Independent Police Commission will examine the ‘challenges for policing in the 21st Century’ including questions about governance, resources and the police’s relationship with other agencies and the wider criminal justice system. It will be chaired by former Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir John Stevens.
Although Lord Stevens will jealously guard the independence of the review, it is an inspired move by Cooper, wresting the political initiative around the future of policing at a critical time.
In response, police minister Nick Herbert claimed that establishing the commission was an “abdication” of political leadership, saying there was no need for such a review as the issues facing the police are “urgent.”
He has a point. The commission is set to take 15 months to deliver its findings. In the meantime there will be elections for new police and crime commissioners on 15 November in 41 of the 43 constabularies (Northern Ireland and the Metropolitan Police have separate arrangements).
By then, Labour will have had to shake off its hostility about these new directly-elected posts.
The party’s previous opposition, based on the cost of commissioners and fears about “politicisation” of the police, sounds a bit synthetic in any event.
Broadly, this is one measure that the government is absolutely right about. It is perfectly reasonable to have proper democratic oversight of our police for the best principled reasons; but frankly, there are emerging tactical reasons to welcome these new appointments as well.
The massive cuts we are seeing to police numbers – 12,000 officers and 16,000 support staff over the next four years – will see constabularies – like all public services under financial stress – begin rationing.
There needs to be proper public debate about how forces deploy the diminished resources at their disposal.
The public needs to be engaged about how this is done and where. Equally the police in each force area needs to be transparent and fully accountable for the decisions they take. Having a visible public advocate at the top of each constabulary can only help in this regard.
Maintaining public trust will be the police’s biggest challenge in 2012.
Part of their response to dealing with fewer officers and less money must be to become much more community-centred, utilising the massive goodwill and co-operation the public is willing to offer in an effort to protect their own communities. This also reinforces the historic Peelian principle that ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’.
Aside from these budgetary pressures, the police force needs longer-term structural reform, improving everything from their approach to customer care and procurement right through to how they utilise modern communications technology and make greater use of civilian staff.
Again, commissioners need to hold their force’s senior management responsible for driving best value and ensuring rigorous performance management.
One of the key priorities for 2012 is learning the correct lessons from this summer’s riots. The Police Federation (which represents officers up to the rank of Inspector) recently argued there were basic logistical mistakes which hampered the co-ordination of the policing response.
This initial lack of sure-footedness had two effects.
First, it damaged public confidence that the police could protect the public and their property, all the more resonant as the disturbances were played out on rolling news channels.
Second, it led to copycat rioting in other cities and towns, again helped by the sight of flagrant looting and what were clearly no-go areas for the police.
This lack of initial firmness now leads to an over-reaction. This week a report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) called for greater use of water cannons and baton rounds to quell future disturbances.
In contrast the Home Affairs Select Committee criticised the police’s operational tactics, arguing that ‘flooding’ the streets with officers was the key to restoring order.
As we have argued before, water cannons are next to useless in containing small gangs of mobile looters. Meanwhile baton rounds (plastic and rubber bullets) are potentially lethal and their greater use will simply lead to increased risk of injury and death.
But the HMIC report goes further, arguing that new ‘rules of engagement’ should see the police shoot (with firearms) armed assailants or arsonists posing a risk to the public. (Thankfully, however, the report does not support the use of the military as a supplementary force during disturbances).
Politicians – across the board – need to be clear with the police that we do not want to see people – even rioters – gunned down in our streets. As Liberty’s director, Shami Chakrabarti, has pointed out, the police already have a range of powers to deal with the kinds of disturbances we saw. They need to use them – and feel supported when they do.
This is a significant problem. The HMIC report says there was ‘an absence of senior direction’ in the proper use of force, amid fears about the legal repercussions for officers. Hence, 49 percent of the public thought the police were too soft on the rioters, (although 43 percent thought their response was ‘about right’).
Maintaining public confidence, dealing with new challenges (including policing the Olympics in the summer) and juggling competing demands with fewer resources is a heady cocktail for chief constables and the new police commissioners to deal with.
Set this against a backdrop of high structural youth unemployment and the ever-constant threat of a repeat of August’s rioting and looting and the police will certainly need to be “match fit” in 2012, as Sir John Stevens recently put it.
These coming months will test whether or not they are.
• The creeping militarisation of our police must be resisted – Kevin Meagher, December 9th 2011
• Anger with police sparked the riots – Ben Mitchell, December 4th 2011
• Did “intelligence” on Dale Farm protestors come from undercover police agents? – Kevin Meagher, October 19th 2011
• Local MP well-placed to lobby on police cuts – Kevin Meagher, August 26th 2011
• Things will only get worse for the police as May’s cuts begin to bite – Kevin Meagher, July 25th 2011
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