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Only police reform can keep politics out of policing

19 July 2011

9:04 AM

19 July 2011

9:04 AM

We expect and openly tolerate close, even cosy, relations between politicians and the
media – each relies on the other for survival in a society that is less deferential and where politicians find it difficult to be heard, let alone trusted. The police need to tell their side
of the story. But the police are not politicians. When senior police officers begin to behave like politicians – and 18 dinners with one media group looks like a politician’s diary
– they damage the wider reputation of the service.

First, officers who meet with the press are still public servants with a duty of discretion, and yet insight and understanding can quickly descend into un-attributable briefings that demean the
police. Relationships become compromising when they become too close – even though no real collusion of any sort takes place.  Second, by acting in a politician-like way, senior officers
become fair game – exposed to the scrutiny we demand of politicians and are therefore seen as politically accountable. We need senior officers to be answerable for their record on crime, but
political accountability is a burden that should rest with a politician.

So, it’s ironic that the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson is now being used by some to question the coalition’s plans for elected Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs). These
figures would replace Police Authorities – invisible and costly committees of appointees – with a single directly-elected personality, who would provide civilian oversight of the
police.


Opponents have been propagating scare stories about extremist candidates and other bogus arguments for months. Equally, many of the policing establishment continue to make a constitutional argument
about politicisation of the police. The Association of Chief Police Officers has lobbied hard to defend the status quo under the banner of the office of constable and on numerous occasions has
implied that this is somehow under threat from an elected Police Commissioner.

But it is precisely because we need to keep politics out of policing that PCCs are such a necessary reform. By respecting the operational independence of the police, they will serve to insulate the
chief constable from politics, liberating police officers to fight crime. And an elected Police Commissioner is effectively a public safety mayor, who will help to hold the police to account,
ensuring that local people get the sort of policing they deserve.

Crime-fighting is what matters most to the police, and the reputation of organisations like the Metropolitan Police ultimately rests on the ability of the police to do just that. The Met is an
organisation that, by virtue of its importance and size, attracts a lot of scrutiny. But like the New York Police Department in the early 1990s which had completely lost its way, the Met too often
seems to have an overriding objective to avoid external criticism, not to fight crime. Scotland Yard has become an increasingly political place over the last decade; the senior management has
established close relations with the media to defend their reputation. That is not the task of a police force.
 
It would be naive to expect the police to operate in a bubble. The Crime Reporters’ Association will still expect some privileged access, earned by their members’ own discretion and
experience. And, of course, chief constables should maintain formal relations with the media and always have a direct line to the public in times of crisis. But close relations with buddies in the
press is the preserve of politicians. So let those who are elected and accountable for politics judge them on that. But let the professionals, the chief constables, get on with fighting crime and
disorder. Only police reform to create elected Police Commissioners can restore the police to their proper role.

Blair Gibbs is the Head of Crime & Justice at Policy Exchange


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