Policing in the 21st Century: Reconnecting Police and the People

by Marc Geddes

The above is not my title. It’s the horrid name given to the consultation paper on police reform in the UK; the contents of which is almost quite as horrid. I have recently been working on public appointments, and in particular the uses and abuses of the concept of patronage. So far, so dodgy? Not really. It’s only when looking at police reform through a number of conceptual lenses that deep problems begin to emerge out of the reform that Theresa May has been advocating.

Before I try to discuss the ideas raised by the paper, why not take a look at it here. Alternatively, there is a nice and neat summary produced by the BBC here.

The main feel of the document is that of ‘streamlining’, without a doubt. Much more than that, I would go further and say that police reform is designed not to decentralise and localise policy-making, but rather to nationalise the police. There are various arguments put forward by the Coalition that the reform will simplify the police so that it is more accessible and more democratically accountable. And yet, the feel of this document, once you read beyond Chapter 2, is one that will centralise policing to unprecedented levels. Again, some may raise the argument that there is no problem with that – some problems are indeed of national prominence. Overlooked then, is the apparent paradox of the paper. On the one hand, the government offers us a new, local approach to policing with greater transparency and accountability. On the other hand, the new National Crime Agency (NCA) and a ‘more independent’ HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), not to mention the ‘re-balanced’ Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) will create national centres of power.

I’m not trying to say that all of what this paper suggests is at all bad. I like the idea of a National Crime Agency, so long as we are clear about its boundaries – which at present we are not. I also like the idea of a strengthened role for ACPO, who are desperately needed at a national level (although this is only because power is so centralised itself).

What I do not like is the idea of a ‘more independent’ HMIC – plainly because it is not possible to make it more independent without watering down its use. Then there are locally elected “Police and Crime Commissioners”. The aim of both of these policies is clear – to increase transparency and accountability. Yet the inadvertent consequence will be a strong rise in public expectations for the police to improve and crime to fall, whilst policing governance cannot improve much more on its record – lowest crime rates since the 1980s is something to be proud of and something to build on, and not shun away from or abolish. I believe that the police in the UK is doing a tough job, and this will not be helped by Commissioners breathing down their necks.

Democratic accountability through a directly elected individual sounds good at first glance. Scratch the surface of these prized Commissioners, and what will you find though? There will be more rhetoric and less reality. There will be less balance and more pressure. It will raise expectations and lower results. If this ‘public expectations gap’ increases, then there will be only one ultimate consequence – disillusionment of the public with democracy. More than that. The public are expecting huge changes because of spin flooding out of Whitehall (e.g. NCA will be the British FBI etc. – will it actually?). The government in fact only wishes to replace one form of democracy with another form of democracy. Yes, policing will appear more local, but at a cost of £50 million to elect these individuals who will then be able to set a local policing strategy – something which councillors, magistrates and independent and lay members have always done. These were called local Police Authorities. They will be replaced by this Commissioner and followed by a Police and Crime Panel to keep a check on Commissioners. The Police and Crime Panel will be made up of councillors, magistrates and independent and lay members. To me, this process has gone full circle, while at the same time increasing new threads of confusing accountability, threatening operational independence and raising public expectations beyond belief.

Commissioners are a bad idea – the democracy that they wish to re-invigorate is being brought down by schemes like this because they will lead to more disillusionment. Perfect example – the failure to prosecute someone for the death of Ian Tomlinson has caused a furore for the Metropolitan Police. The public, too, are angry. And yet there is nothing realistically that could be done – only one man thinks differently, namely the one standing for election trying to grab as many votes as possible and delivering as little as effort permits.

What we need to do is empower our local councils. The down-trodden, cash-stripped, mocked councils that provide insurmountable services to our daily lives. The Coalition is unlikely to favour such a policy, what with the Conservative love of a strong, central state.


Please note that an edited version of this article has appeared in Canvas, a student politics journal for which I was the Founder and Editor between 2010 and 2012. The article is available here.