One month in. Christmas and New Year have arrived just in time to pause and take stock. It’s been an intense few weeks and an extraordinary time in the evolution of British policing. It’s a great privilege to be part of these changes and I’m loving the job.
I’ve managed to finish Clive Emsley’s highly readable and entertaining book about policing: The Great British Bobby. He covers the story of police men and women through the ages. What strikes me about these histories is how much of what we think is new has been around for ages. Politics, money, corruption and change swirl about the story of policing like early morning mist about a constable’s feet. But the constable steps on, doing his – and increasingly her – duty, serving a community and facing the same wet feet, lonely nights and split second decisions that no amount of technology or reorganisation will ever change.
You get the same in histories of financial crises, politics or war. So much that was written about Wellington’s soldiers could have been written about their descendants in Iraq. So much of the financial catastrophe that has engulfed us since 2008 could be told through the experience of the railway boom or the South Sea Bubble. There’s very little that hasn’t been seen before, perhaps because human nature is more constant than we’d like to admit. Loyalty, honour, pride, courage and service are as eternal as jealousy, brutality, corruption and hate. Crime and punishment are part of that mix.
So we shouldn’t be surprised at the current scandals engulfing the police. They are as old as policing itself. So are the solutions. But equally we shouldn’t kid ourselves that these scandals can be ignored, nor about the effort required to overcome them. Just about every public institution in Britain has been shaken to its core in the last few years. The police are no different.
You hear a lot about rotten apples and barrels in situations like these. The cure for rotten apples is to open up the barrel so everyone can see which are good and which bad. That will be an uncomfortable process. Regaining trust requires the kind of public exposure that would make a nudist blush. Just ask a politician. Or a banker.
Has the message sunk in? I’m not sure. Too often the instinct to justify, to defend and to excuse the inexcusable kicks in. I know that temptation too. It must be resisted. It doesn’t matter that Dyfed Powys is a long way from the Met, or that ministers are unlikely to fall on the strength of a foul-mouthed strop in mid-Wales. The instincts are the same, wherever you are. Blaming journalists or politicians is pointless. Mistrust will spread until the barrel is opened.
One of Emsley’s interesting observations at the end of his book is about how people have lost a sense of ownership over their police. That might be said of just about any public service. The irony is that just as business goes networked and micro, local government and the police, who both emulate the language of business, are still fixated with ‘big’. But there’s a price to pay when you replace a local constable with a phone number and it rarely appears on a spreadsheet.
Why does ownership matter? It matters because the police lie at the very heart of the relationship between people and the state. Police have the power to take away our liberty. It doesn’t get more serious than that. All the more important, then, that their work has our consent.
Consent requires trust. And trust requires accountability. That is the very essence of our criminal justice system – we trust it because it belongs to us. That’s why juries try their peers and why the police have evolved under local, not central, control. Take ownership away and you have something imposed from outside, resented and eventually rejected.
It’s easy to get dewy-eyed about ‘policing by consent’. Not everyone consents all of the time, of course. Criminals for one are not usually first in line for more policing. But it’s not a bad place to start. It establishes a relationship based on trust rather than force. And, as it happens, evidence does suggest that how fairly criminals feel they are treated affects their chances of reoffending.
If you believe, as I do, that we have something precious in the unarmed constable, upholder of the Queen’s peace and answerable to her people’s government, then consent matters. If you don’t, spend a few weeks in Russia. Or Iraq. Or southern Italy. You’ll learn everything you need to know about corruption and the police. Heaven knows what happens in France.
All of which, thankfully, seems a long way from Dyfed Powys. One month in and not a hint of Russia, you’ll be relieved to know. But the serious point remains. That is that Team Police has not kept up with Team GB in 2012. They must do better and Dyfed Powys is part of that too.
Our age is almost mediaeval in its reliance on twittered rumour and public suspicion of established institutions. ‘Consent’ and ‘trust’ sound quaint but they are an ancient answer to a modern problem. Scandals in one place spread like wild fire to undermine confidence in others. People read about corruption and wonder, who can they trust?
The answer has to be ‘the police’. Those of us involved in policing must not duck the question. It’s a bigger ask than some seem to realise. One thing I’m sure of is that the answer lies in the great tradition that Emsley describes and it flows in the bloodstream of the Great British Bobby. We just have to rediscover it.
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