March 18, 2021.
I will make no apologies for being essentially a supporter of the British Police. However, as with most things, support is not blind and it must not be. It must be tempered with realism and recent events have shone the spotlight on policing in the UK and rather dramatically so - however, one must differentiate between ordinary rank-and-file officers on the front line and those who lead them.
Let us begin with those uniformed coppers one sees on the streets. Firstly, one should grasp, indeed must grasp, one simple fact; these men and women are human beings, just like the rest of us. Like many, they have families at home, wives, husbands and children they say bye-bye to every time they go to work. And all of them know nothing of what they may face when they do leave home each day. Neither do those families – and some officers (thankfully not many) don’t come back home.
Like the rest of us once more, police officers have the same qualities as we do. They can also have the same failings as everybody else. Like ordinary mortals, front line officers carry emotions, feelings and everything that members of the public do. All the more remarkable then, that the vast majority of police men and women show so much patience when faced with the daily barrage of spit, foul language and outright violence and savagery that is aimed at them.
Much is made of short video clips shown on social media which appear to show police officers behaving in undesirable ways; shoving people to the ground and so on. But is it not reasonable to ask; what preceded that shown in these videos? More often than not, it is provocative attitudes towards the police that start the ball rolling. I am probably whistling in the wind here, but might it not be a good idea for members of the public to be less aggressive, verbally, physically or both, when confronted with the police? No matter how right those members of the public may feel they are, officers on the street have been given a job to do, so do it they must.
Yes, there are some – and possibly too many – who get carried away with what they have been tasked to do, but as I have already said, police officers are only human, just like the rest of us. Having said that, it is undeniable that to be a police officer, those who sign up to be one need to be a little special. One cannot be ‘ordinary’.
We in the UK make much, rightly, of ‘policing by consent’ but this is a much misunderstood term. What it does not mean is that somebody can state (usually shouting in the face of an officer with whom they have a problem) “I do not consent” to be questioned or arrested or otherwise dealt with by an officer.
What ‘policing by consent’ actually means is that we as citizens give our permission, our consent, and empower our representatives, our Members of Parliament (MPs) to provide the police with what they need to do their jobs; to actively seek out those who break the law, compile evidence against them, arrest them and bring them before a court of law. The police need to have the authority and the power to go about doing just that and this is what we consent to. We also pay for them to do so via our taxes.
We know that all police services across the UK will have good cops and bad cops. Most of them are good – by some distance in fact. All join because they want to do something worthwhile and the plain fact is we would be lost without them. Human nature however, is what it is so there will inevitably be some, a minority, who will overstep the mark.
If one accepts then, that most front line officers will do what they are supposed to, one must also accept that they have senior officers, whose job it is to lead them. To instruct them on them in what they should do and what they should not do in the course of everyday policing. Significant numbers of senior officers have worked their way up from the bottom, starting as ordinary constables. The problems of today do not lie here. The difficulties come from further up the chain.
There are an equally significant number of very senior officers who have not come from the lower ranks and are little more than political appointments. It has been said that under Tony Blair, the then Metropolitan Police (the Met) Commissioner, one Ian Blair (no relation) turned London’s police into the paramilitary wing of New Labour - whether true or not only Messrs Blair and Blair can say. What can be said is that Ian Blair faced a number of events that none of his predecessors did (including his namesake as PM) and failed to deal with them in the best ways. In other words, he was not special enough – he was too ordinary. Despite that, he was one of the few who did work his way up from the bottom, starting his police career as a constable in 1974 with the Met and based in Soho. All the more disappointing then perhaps, that his leadership is looked back on so unfavourably.
Ian Blair is just one police leader to have brought about controversy. Until 2015, Chief Constables were represented by The Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (ACPO). A long-established organisation, ACPO provided a forum for chief police officers to share ideas and coordinate their strategic operational responses, and advised government in matters such as terrorist attacks and civil emergencies. ACPO coordinated national police operations, major investigations, cross-border policing, and joint law enforcement. ACPO designated Senior Investigative Officers for major investigations and appointed officers to head ACPO units specialising in various areas of policing and crime reduction.
In its later years however, ACPO became well-known for demanding ever-increasing powers for police services, especially under New Labour, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Many of these demands were met between 1997 and 2010.
One of the most notorious was ACPO’s supervision and creation of one of the world's largest per-capita DNA databases, containing the DNA profiles of more than one million un-convicted people. Guidelines from ACPO stated that these profiles should only be deleted in ‘exceptional circumstances’, and were found to be unlawful by the UK Supreme Court in May 2011. They were also found to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, following the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in S and Marper v United Kingdom. On 1 May 2012, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 completed its passage through Parliament and received Royal Assent. Up until it ceased to exist in 2015, ACPO did not reissue revised guidelines to replace its unlawful DNA exceptional procedure. Big Brother Watch, in a report of June 2012, has adopted the view that, despite the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, the retention of DNA in England and Wales remains an uncertain and illiberal regime.
Following a number of other controversies, in 2013, an independent review of ACPO by General Sir Nick Parker was published. It recommended that ACPO be replaced by a new body, in the interests of greater transparency and cost effectiveness. On the basis of these recommendations, a new organisation, the National Police Chiefs' Council, was set up to replace ACPO, which it did on 1 April 2015.
Many of the principles established by ACPO remain however, as do demands from Chief Constables for ever greater powers and these still tend to be handed over by those who lead the police leaders – politicians. Hence the apparent enthusiasm by police leaders to ‘crack down’ on COVID-19 law breakers and the instructions those leaders issue to those further down the chain of command.
Police services everywhere, whether we care to admit it or not, whether we like it or not, are directly responsible to the governments of the day, including the police in the UK. It follows therefore that a corrupt government will create a corrupt police service, no matter how diligent front line officers may be. Those we mostly see and have dealings with have an obligation to follow the orders they are given. The real question here is at what point will the rank-and-file say enough is enough, and thus start questioning those who lead them.
That a seriously significant portion of the public has lost confidence in the police is beyond doubt. That in turn however leads to the public also questioning not only police leadership but those who lead them – the government and all other MPs, especially those who voted in the House of Commons in favour of increased police powers.
What happens in other countries is a matter for those concerned but the United Kingdom has firm traditions in the way police act, behave and do their duty. After all, when you are in trouble, who are you going to call?
Nevertheless, the police in the UK have become overpoweringly overwhelming, flying in the face of those traditions and need to be reined in – but rather than point accusing fingers (and much worse) at front line officers, the responsibility lies with those leading the police and those we send to parliament.
© Kevan James 2021.
Images - © Adrian Pingstone