Civitas Civitas


Harriet Sergeant

Executive Summary
Public and the Police

Never has the police service had so much money, so many officers or such access to technology. Yet never has public dissatisfaction with the police been so widespread. Complaints against the police have increased. Traditional supports, the law-abiding middle classes, complain of rudeness and neglect of duty. It is hard to get the police to respond to reports of crime and anti social behaviour. Investigations are frequently lacklustre and often abandoned.

Unlike the USA, the public here lacks the power to get the policing they want. Neither the public, their democratically elected local councillors nor their MP have any influence over the strategy of their local force, its funding or the appointment or removal of its Chief Constable. Since the Police Act 1964 successive government have accrued power to the centre.

The police, in their turn complain of central control and ill thought out government policies. All interviews were characterised by a high level of bitterness and frustration. Bonuses are paid to senior officers based on how they comply with targets. As in the NHS bad targets are coercing otherwise ethical public servants into unethical behaviour. Serious crime is ignored and minor crime elevated to the serious in order to satisfy the measurement regime. One office said: 'We are bringing more and more people to justice - but they are the wrong people.' Targets and increased central control are turning what should be an independent police force into what another officer described as, 'an extension of the government.' At the same time too much paper work sees officers spend only 14% of their time on patrol. Police numbers may be historically high but they are low compared to other countries while the ratio of crimes to officers is now overwhelming.

Targets miss the point of what the public wants. The Home Office judges each police force by how many crimes they detect and clear up. The public wants something different. They do not want the crimes happening in the first place. The absence of crime and disorder is not a target. As one constable wrote, 'I remember when it was a matter of pride to come back after a night shift to find no crimes had happened. Now all we are asked is why no one was locked up.'

The police are one part of the criminal justice system which includes the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts. All three work to different targets in conflict with each other and, too often, with the victim's quest for justice. The CPS is judged, amongst other things, by the number of successful prosecutions. This means it drops cases it is unsure of winning. As the first point of contract, the police get the blame. 'I get fed up', said one Chief Superintendent, 'with apologising to the public for the failures of the criminal justice system.'

Police officers swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen not the Prime Minister. Unlike many other police forces, British police were not intended to be servants of the state but of the communities they serve. Their powers are personal, used at their own discretion and derived from the crown. This essential feature of British policing - policing by consent - is now in jeopardy.

  • The Public and the Police by Harriet Sergeant is published by Civitas ( 77 Great Peter St, London SW1P 2EZ, tel 020 7799 6677, price 6.00 inc. pp.