How do we restore public trust in policing?

'Above all, consulting with and reporting to the community you police, through democratically elected representatives and representative community consultative groups, is key to restoring trust and confidence.'

Unmesh Desai is a London Assembly Member for City & East Constituency and Deputy Chair of the London Assembly’s Police Committee

There is a crisis of confidence in policing across the UK. Surveys show that the public’s trust in the police’s ability to do a good job, solve crime and protect the communities they serve has steadily declined in the past few years. Nowhere is this more true than in London, where data from the Mayor’s Office for Police and Crime shows that fewer than half of Londoners have trust and confidence in the Met. This is even lower among specific communities, such as the Black community, or among women.

This poses a severe challenge for the Met and, more widely, for policing in this country. We operate a model of policing by consent, where the unique powers of the police come from the support of the communities they police, where policing is done with the community, not imposed upon it from above. A lack of trust and confidence, therefore, threatens the legitimacy of our whole system. This begs the question, how has this crisis of confidence developed, and what are our ways out of it?

At the time of writing, there are seven police forces across the country in ‘special measures’. Whilst there will be locally specific problems to each force, there are patterns across many of the forces. Often, these forces are poor at providing updates and advice to victims, they are poor at identifying and responding to warning signs both in potential victims and in potential perpetrators, and they are poor at recording data around crime and interventions. These are all concerns that certainly apply to the Met.

Notwithstanding the obvious need for these forces to improve their services – and which, in the Met’s case, we will be closely scrutinising at City Hall – these patterns are reflective of the growing complexity of police work. When Robert Peel founded the service back in July 1829, the force was mainly concerned with preventing public disorder. Gradually, its concerns have shifted and changed, and the police are, rightly, now expected to respond to crime in every aspect of our lives, including in an ever-increasing digital space that they, frankly – if one considers the outcome rate for fraud cases – aren’t even close to getting a grip on.

We cannot talk about trust and confidence in the Met without discussing the high-profile scandals that have engulfed the force in the past few years. The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer appalled and frightened women in the capital, and the response of the Met to this incident was woefully inadequate. The Daniel Morgan Inquiry Panel exposed the Met as “institutionally corrupt”, and the ensuing report pointed out glaring issues with how the Met vets candidates, how it deals with evidence and how it handles informants. The police handling of the murders of four young gay men by Stephen Port and the subsequent inquest exposed critical issues regarding how LGBT communities are policed. And finally, the terrible overuse of the power to strip-search children, particularly Black and ethnic minority children, which was exposed due to the treatment of Child Q and the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighted the over-policing and under-protection that Black and ethnic minority communities have for too long faced. These incidents shook policing in London to its core. We are still dealing with their ramifications, and the Met needs to be cognisant of this on its mission to move forward and rebuild trust.

So, where do we go from here?  The country has changed dramatically in all ways since 1964, when we last had a royal commission on policing. I, personally, believe another is desperately needed now, and it is something an incoming Labour government needs to look into. Issues such as whether there are too many police forces (43), whether the Met should be a London police service with its many national functions to be divested to a revamped National Crime Agency, and associated issues such as police complaints and accountability procedures need to be urgently looked at in a holistic way.

What does policing with consent mean in today’s world? Ultimately, the basic concept is still one of taking your local community with you. How you recruit, train and retain officers to reflect our diverse society and ensure operational practices are fair, proportionate and non-discriminatory are key challenges. Above all, consulting with and reporting to the community you police, through democratically elected representatives and representative community consultative groups, is key to restoring trust and confidence. Equally important is the need to respond effectively to the day-to-day concerns of crimes such as ASB and burglaries, and work with partner agencies to vastly improve reporting, arrest, prosecution, conviction and support systems, particularly for crimes like domestic abuse. Trust can only be rebuilt from a victim-orientated perspective. A tall order – but policing has never faced so many challenges.

This piece was originally published in print by Chartist.

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