Our myopic faith in British police supremacy must end

Published in The Guardian (August 17th, 2011)

More than three decades ago Tom Robinson rose to fame with a gay rights anthem that began with the lines: “The British police are the best in the world, I don’t believe one of these stories I’ve heard.” Many people are still singing from the same songsheet despite the recent evidence – and unlike the singer, they aren’t being sarcastic.

Leading the cheerleaders are the braided ranks of police chiefs, railing against the idea of an American getting their top job. The acting commissioner of the Metropolitan police lashed out at armchair critics who had the temerity to criticise their leadership. Others proclaimed the irrelevance of their political masters when it comes to policing. These kneejerk reactions demonstrate just one thing: our police lack confidence.

They are intolerant of debate and closed to new ideas. A confident and progressive force would have reacted in a very different way. But then our police – especially the Met – have much to be defensive about after resisting reform for so long.

They have stumbled from disaster to disaster in recent years, despite lavish funding and unyielding political support. Undermined by poor leadership, they have bungled high-profile cases, botched investigations, shot dead people without cause, misled the public, misused terror legislation and harassed ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, poor handling of low-level crimes has eroded public support.

If ever there was a need for outsiders to challenge closed minds, it is with the police. This is why it is a huge shame the home secretary, Theresa May, put her foot down on the idea of Bill Bratton taking over at the Met. At the very least we should use events of recent days to spark debate over not just the funding of police but their effectiveness.

First, the disclaimer. Policing is a difficult, often thankless job. Officers put their lives on the line so we can live in safety. Mistakes, even fatal ones, will be made. With public unrest, there will always be criticism of tactics for being either too hard or too soft. And many police officers are superb public servants who deserve the highest praise.

Now the facts. The Met – the nearest thing we have to a national police force – is leaderless because its chief resigned over taking a freebie at a health farm. His force is at the centre of a scandal over dodgy links to the press, including allegations of corruption. This led to one potential successor quitting. The previous chief also quit early after political machinations backfired. Amid all this, a man was shot dead in dubious circumstances and – just as happened in similar cases such as the killing of Jean Charles de Menzies – there was dissembling over events. Riots and looting erupted, and we had the dismal sight of police officers standing back while people’s homes and shops were destroyed.

You might expect some humility. Instead the top cops displayed arrogance, reacting in fury when there was criticism and the suggestion of seeking advice from abroad. So here are more concerns to throw into the equation. The terrorism strategy has been flawed with a series of errors made, from the mistaken arrest of ricin plotters to a failure to investigate the ringleader of the 21 July 2005 bomb plot. Despite this, police demanded further and unwarranted restrictions on civil liberties while using terror laws to hound photographers taking pictures of London landmarks. Not one stop and search led to a terrorism conviction. But the abuse of these powers is driving a wedge between police and ethnic minorities. A recent study found black people are 26 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched.

One of the most senior Asians in Whitehall told me he despaired of the police. Why? Because he had been endlessly stopped – and because when his girlfriend was mugged, there was not even the pretence they might catch the culprit, just a response to help the insurance claim. Most people have similar tales.

I have not dwelled on the death of Ian Tomlinson during G20 protests, the daft arrest of Tory MP Damian Green, or the cash-for-honours probe that led nowhere. But it is clear to see why confidence in the police has plummeted. Fewer than half of people trust them to deal with minor crimes – a damning statistic – while nearly one-third coming into contact with them are dissatisfied.

This cries out for more than a sterile debate over cuts, especially since we spend more on policing as a proportion of GDP than any other OECD country that gives out figures. After the cuts, there will still be 210,000 police officers and staff, as many as we had in 2004 – and twice as many special constables. The bigger issues are ones of leadership and accountability.

Politicians share some responsibility for this crisis in policing, not least with their obsession for making new laws that mean a constable is confronted with 2,600 pages of instruction from the Home Office. But they are not responsible for poor decision-making – nor the poor management that led to a near-doubling in police overtime over the last decade or, as a new Policy Exchange report will reveal, the tripling of uniformed staff sitting in the Met control units.

We need to do two things. Firstly, slaughter the sacred cows – such as the insistence all recruits spend two years on the beat – that prevent better quality people joining the higher ranks of the police force. Then, despite howls of outrage from police leaders, bring in fresh thinking wherever we can find it to develop a more modern and responsive force. We should not just look to the US, although there is much to learn from its work fighting gangs and the use of data to tackle crime hotspots. Australia has cut down the number of ranks and made it easier to bring in recruits at higher levels. Holland has introduced performance-related pay and has cut crime so fast it is renting out prisons to Belgium.

We must end our myopic faith in the supremacy of the British police. The charge sheet against them, especially in London, is too long to ignore. And we owe the police more than the complacency shown by their most senior figures in recent days.

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