Archives for October 2014

Firearms Licensing. Handle with Care.

The tragic evidence revealed by the trial of John Lowe in Surrey remind us what a difficult job policing firearms is.

Mid-Wales has the highest number of firearms licenses per head in the country. That is not surprising given the nature of the area. Farmers, gamekeepers, huntsmen and hobbyists all have a right to hold legal, licensed weapons. Many depend on these licenses for a living.

On the other hand the public have a right to be protected. Dyfed Powys Police are responsible for vetting licenses. They must balance the rights of license holders against the risk to public safety. That is no small task.

I have watched the outcome of the Lowe trial, and the clear anguish of the family with great sympathy and interest. I do not know whether the police did or didn’t follow proper processes. With the benefit of hindsight, the decision to return Mr. Lowe’s guns was a mistake. But hindsight is a wonderful thing.

We must resist the temptation to assume that all these events can be prevented. You cannot legislate for everything. Good policy means balancing rights and responsibilities.

We must not penalise the farmer who needs his shotgun for the actions of a single disturbed individual. Nor should we penalise those within the police who must balance those rights against unknowable risks to public safety. You cannot eliminate all risk. When you try, you usually create some other, unseen, risk.

By far the majority of complaints I receive relating to firearms are about over-zealous policing. What this tells us is that the police are painfully aware of the importance of their decisions.

Some complaints are fanciful but some have merit. The licensing process can be cautious to the point of absurdity and fearful to the point of paralysis. The result is a bureaucracy where people are terrified of a mistake and a slave to process. That clouds judgement. And all these decisions come down to judgement in the end.

Our best hope of avoiding tragedy is to keep a clear head. We have to trust license holders to act responsibly. And we have to trust the police to exercise their judgement. There will be mistakes. But there will be fewer mistakes in a thoughtful atmosphere than an accusing one.

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What have you ever done for me?

Usually people are too polite to put it that directly, but it’s always the question they want to ask.

They are right to. I’m paid a good salary from their taxes. I answer to them at the ballot box. I am responsible for a vital public service.

Last week provided two answers which, to me, capture the essence of the role: giving the public control. My first is local. The other is national.

A little over a year ago I raised my concerns about the police use of cautions in public. You can read how it was reported here.

When I arrived at Dyfed Powys, all I heard from senior staff was that we had the lowest crime and the highest detection rates in the country. I, being new, barely knew what that meant. I was sure that the public didn’t either.

What I knew was the many people had raised their concerns about how few cases made it to court. I knew from the figures that we were the highest users of cautions in the country. What I suspected was that officers were under pressure to get their ‘detection rates’ up.

One of the easiest ways to do that is to slap cautions on a bunch of relatively minor crimes, which usually means young people and often for possession of small amounts of cannabis (the one set of crime figures that officers were told should rise were drug crimes, because it supposedly meant the police were being more proactive).

Now, cannabis is illegal and possessing it a crime. I am not questioning that. But all law enforcement – all justice – is about balance and proportion. Creating crimes and criminal records for the young to meet bureaucratic targets is not justice, nor good law enforcement. So, I raised my concerns.

What followed were howls of outrage from parts of the police and grumbling about interference.

A year later I find myself looking at figures which show Dyfed Powys Police’s use of cautions has fallen 17%. More cases are going to court, where they are open to the public. Fewer are being dealt with in silence between officers and the accused.

We have a scrutiny panel which looks at how cautions are being used. As many as 60% of one early sample were ‘inappropriate’, i.e. the case should have gone to court. In the latest sample, 33% are. That’s still too many but it is a great improvement.

On Friday, as we discussed these figures in our Police Accountability Board, a statement was released in London.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is to be scrapped. Its President, Sir Hugh Orde, will step down shortly. I have written about ACPO before, so I won’t rehearse the arguments. You can read them here.

Make no mistake. PCCs finished ACPO.

We stopped its funding because it had grown like a creeper around the brickwork of British policing. Local forces, local decision making, local needs were smothered in unchallengeable bureaucratese. ‘ACPO guidance’ assumed the writ of a holy text. Challenging it was all but impossible.

The end of ACPO is a credit to the work of Jane Kennedy, Martyn Underhill and particularly Matthew Ellis who led the painstaking work. I am delighted that a new generation of Chief Constables have now decided what they would like to replace it. And I wish Sir Hugh a happy, much deserved retirement.

Police policy must be subject to democratic scrutiny. It must reflect the needs of the times and the needs of different areas. That will become the job of the College of Policing, which must work hard not to fall into the same trap.

What connects these answers?

The public connects them. By giving the public power over their police, PCCs have ensured that the system serves the public, not the other way round.

Cautions are not there for police convenience. They are there as a deterrent to minor offenders. The police do not work for ACPO. They work for their public.

Nothing frustrates the public more than politicians who talk and cannot deliver. That much should be clear, from Scotland, to UKIP, to Westminster and Europe. A very basic lesson lies at the heart of this: nothing, no matter how high-minded or well-intentioned, lasts without public consent.

People are demanding power and politicians who deliver. That means power must be exercised closer to people, through devolution. But it also requires power to shift from officials towards the public, though stronger local democracy.

PCCs are already delivering this for the police. I hope the next Parliament will deliver still wider reforms in the years to come.

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