Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Regression to the Mean: The Death of Social-Democratic Policing

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Regression to the Mean: The Death of Social-Democratic Policing

Article excerpt

The Conservative-led coalition government has taken a series of connected decisions about the police. First, it has consistently rehearsed the view, returning to their 1993 white paper on the subject, that "the main job of the police is to catch criminals". That is indeed a crucial part of policing but there are many others. By concentrating so narrowly on crime and detection, the Conservatives have inexplicably ignored the preponderance of criminological theory and professional police opinion across the world. This categorically suggests that crime can be best controlled through a wider approach by the police, attempting to interact with the whole community in order to build legitimacy and consent.

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Second, the government has reduced funding for the police more severely than for most other parts of the public sector, requiring the service to eliminate 20 per cent of costs over the next four years. This will probably force the police to retreat to an outdated method of working, reacting to crime after it has occurred rather than trying to minimise what gives rise to it. The combination of the first two decisions will drive the service to reduce its involvement in neighbourhoods, take police officers out of schools and put most of them back into their cars responding to emergency calls.

Third, it has deliberately reduced professional police involvement in policymaking and the development of the doctrine of evidence-based policing. It openly criticises the Association of Chief Police Officers, to the point where coalition-run police authorities have begun to starve it of funds. For no coherent reason, the Home Office is scrapping the National Policing Improvement Agency, an organisation that was trying to do what it said on the tin.

Last, in their drive to roll back the state, the Conservatives have legislated to place chief constables under the direct control of individual politicians in a manner never seen in Britain. This will endanger the long tradition of operational police independence.

These four moves threaten with extinction the primary model of British policing or, more correctly, of policing in England and in a very reluctant Wales, because Scotland has rejected the idea.

Over the course of nearly two centuries, Britain developed a new model of policing, usually described by criminologists such as Robert Reiner as social democratic. This may now be in its death throes.

Policing and politics are inextricably linked. In the end, both are about power and the use of force. Within all nation states, the police are the sole institution empowered to use force on free citizens without needing to seek prior legal permission. Even the words are linked etymologically, through the Greek polis, or "city": consider politician, political, politic, politics, polity, policy, police and politicised.

Just as with the absence of the rule of law, the absence of an effective police service, as in postinvasion Afghanistan or Iraq, is an emblem of a failed state. For the police to serve only one political party or politician is a symbol of dictatorship. Precisely because it is so important, policing is a political issue.

However, all democratic states go to great lengths to prevent policing from becoming politicised, especially by stopping one politician or ministry gaining sole control of the police. England and Wales have had (although only until this November) a balance of powers between the home secretary, 43 local chief constables and police authorities, which are made up of local politicians and independent members. Many other countries, such as the United States, Germany and Australia, divide control between federal and local jurisdictions. Others, such as France and Italy, have national forces that answer to competing ministries.

Dr Justice Tankebe, born in a police barracks in Ghana and now teaching at Cambridge University, has defined police legitimacy as depending on "the recognition by citizens of the moral rightness of the police's claim to authority". …

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