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Politicisation of the police is putting policing by consent at risk

The tradition of policing by consent, which used to make Britain the envy of the world, is in danger from political interference that is alienating the police from the public, according to a new report from independent think-tank Civitas.

When officers join the police force they swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen, not the prime minister. Unlike many other forces, British police have never been servants of the state: officers’ powers are personal, used at their own discretion and derived from the Crown – until now.

Government targets before serving the public

In The Public and the Police Harriet Sergeant describes the way in which the British police force has been made to put government targets before serving the public. These targets, set by the Home Office, result in bonuses of between £5,000 and £15,000 to top officers whose forces meet them, with the predictable result that officers lower down the scale come under pressure to concentrate on whatever is targeted, to the neglect of other things.

Police performance is measured in ‘sanction detections’, a term for offences detected or cleared by charging someone, issuing a PND (penalty notice) or giving them a caution if they will admit the offence, have no previous record and have not recently received a PND. In order to meet targets, police are now classifying incidents as crimes that would previously have been dealt with informally, classified differently or ignored.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act allows police to arrest anyone for ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress’. Before the arrival of sanction detections, the police only evoked Section 5 for a public order offence, but now that police can now claim a sanction detection for an arrest under Section 5, minor crime and even innocuous activities appear in a different light.

‘A patrol officer described what happened to the drunks in his town when senior officers realized they could be arrested under Section 5 instead. Suddenly in a town with a large student population there were no drunks. The drunk and disorderly were still being arrested but not for inebriation.’ (p.40)

However, the consequences for those arrested under Section 5 rather than for being drunk and disorderly can be serious:

‘A prospective employer looks at criminal records. He might accept a night in the cells for being intoxicated. “Well, we’ve all done that.” He would view an arrest under Section 5 in a different light. “Mouthing off at the police, alarming the public – what does that say about your attitude towards authority?” The arrest could seriously affect a young person’s career (p.41)…

Everyone arrested gives a sample of DNA which automatically guarantees a criminal record number on the Police National Computer. A criminal record number affects a young person taking up certain occupations (joining the police for one) and getting a USA visa. One senior police officer confirmed: “We are in discussions with the Americans to make them aware of our system.” The Americans find it difficult to understand that a number of our criminals are not criminal at all – simply a result of Home Office targets.’ (p.49)

Rising numbers of sanction detections give the impression that the police are waging an effective war against crime, but, as one officer interviewed put it: ‘We are bringing more and more people to justice but they are the wrong people.’ (p.48) Like other targets, they measure what was chosen to be measured, not whether the public are getting a good service.

‘Arresting a child for chalking on the pavement gets a sanction detection. The painstaking, time-consuming work of tracking down a missing child does not. A child stealing a Mars bar earns the officer the same as a murder. Murders obviously require a lot more police time than a Mars bar. Officers are now reluctant to get involved in police work that does not earn a target. “We put less effort into areas we are not judged on.”‘ (p.42)

Public dissatisfaction with the police is high

Harriet Sergeant points to a paradox in policing: the police force is now more lavishly funded and staffed than at any time in its history, but its popularity with the public is at a very low level. Complaints against the police have risen, with much of the increase coming from law-abiding, middle-class, middle-aged and retired people who no longer feel that the police are on their side.

Not only do the police seem intent on criminalising those whose offences, if they can be regarded as offences at all, are trivial, like holding open a lift door (p.49); they are accused of concentrating on easy-to-deal-with offending, like speeding, while the real criminals seem to be getting away with it. They are slow to respond to calls, even to serious crimes taking place; often slack about follow-up; and unwilling to tackle persistent anti-social behaviour that blights neighbourhoods.

The police, in their defence, say that, whilst their numbers are historically high by British standards, they are below levels in other countries, and this is one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world. The volume of crime each officer has to deal with is overwhelming, with response teams (i.e. the officers who respond to calls for assistance) often depleted to extremely low levels. In response to ever-more government initiatives, officers are called off to specialist units – immigration, asset recovery, the Olympics – leaving fewer to deal with calls for help from the public:

‘One response officer tried to explain to an irate old lady why he had taken so long to arrive. “How many police do you think are on duty in this area tonight?” he asked. “Seventy or eighty”, she replied. “Try six!” he said.’ (p.19)

The deluge of paperwork imposed on the police by Whitehall means that just 14% of officer time is spent on patrol (p.17):

‘In 2005/06 the Metropolitan Police, Britain’s biggest force, spent £122.2 million on “non-incident linked paperwork” and £26.5 million on “checking paper work” out of a total budget of £3.2 billion. In contrast it spent just £76.6 million on robberies and £48.8 million on house burglaries. It is reassuring to learn that the Met also boasts “a unit seeking to eliminate unnecessary paperwork”.’ (p.17)

The police also complain that, when they do catch offenders, many escape with an NFA – no further action – because the Crown Prosecution Service, with targets of its own to achieve in terms of successful prosecutions, is unwilling to proceed with cases that are not watertight.

‘A woman working as a prostitute was raped by a client. It was premeditated. He had a rope ready to tie her up and the implements to torture her with. Her ordeal lasted four-and-a-half hours. Her injuries were so serious she had to have a total hysterectomy. Nine months later the same man raped another escort girl. The CPS refused to take the case to court because of “insufficient evidence”. The woman brought a private prosecution, the first for rape in England. Her attacker was found guilty on the same evidence that the CPS had dismissed as insufficient and sentenced to 14 years.’ (p.32)

Those unwilling or unable to bring private prosecutions have to watch while criminals walk free ? and every time the criminals get away with it, they learn lessons to reduce their chances of getting caught again.

Less from Whitehall, more from local communities

Harriet Sergeant believes that the answer to the problems she describes must involve getting the government out of the job of policing. The politicisation of the force must be tackled, with the removal of targets. She also proposes a local tax to pay for policing, with commanders selected by and answerable to taxpayers, through local government or even direct elections (p.77).


Notes to editors:

For more information ring:
Harriet Sargeant / Robert Whelan on: 020 7799 6677


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