BY BILL KIRKMAN
As policing in the U.K. becomes more centrally controlled, it is ever more remote from the people policed.
HOW policing is organised has always been a subject of discussion, indeed often of controversy, in the United Kingdom. Developments currently taking place have ensured that controversy is most certainly colouring discussion.Traditionally, British policing has had a strongly local flavour. Until the 1960s, it really was local. Each town had its own constabulary, with its own chief constable. The rural areas were policed by county-based forces. Each village had its local "bobby", who knew the place and the people. The Metropolitan Police - the "Met" - responsible for policing greater London, and with national responsibilities, has always been huge by comparison with all the others.
Process of modernisation
A series of mergers produced larger forces. The arguments for this change were essentially two: the very small forces did not have the capacity to deal with modern conditions, and secondly, they could easily become inbred and corrupt. In 1957, for example, there was a famous police scandal in Brighton, (which I covered for The Times), where the chief constable and two of his officers were accused of conspiracy with some local criminals. (The chief constable was acquitted, but removed from his post. The others were convicted.)There are still wide disparities in size, and in type of population, served by the different constabularies. The Lincolnshire force, for example, serves a largely rural county, with no major conurbation. West Midlands, by contrast, with Birmingham as its base, serves a large, ethnically varied, urban concentration. The major current development is a decision by the government to merge a number of smaller forces (smaller, but, of course, very much larger than the municipal minnows of the 1950s). This is vehemently opposed by many of these forces, and their police authorities, which are largely composed of local politicians.There is obviously a measure of self-interest in this, as politicians, and chief constables, see their positions coming under threat. But there is also genuine dislike of the idea of policing becoming ever more remote from the people policed. Some of the opposing views are voiced in colourful language. Members of the police authority in Cambridgeshire (one of the threatened smaller forces) declared that they would need to be dragged kicking and screaming into merger. "We're not turkeys volunteering for Christmas".
Crime clearly is not constrained by local government boundaries. That is the reasoning behind the creation, at the beginning of this month, of a new, large, nationwide, law enforcement body, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), which has been likened to the American FBI. The case for that, at a time of major international crime (notably drug-related), and international terrorism, is obviously strong. So is the case for much more joined-up systems used by different police forces. Communication is hampered by the fact that different police forces have different information technology systems. Local control in this case simply leads to inefficiency, and some recent high-profile cases have shown how serious that can be.That said, the conflict between central control and local presence and accountability is strong and real. Furthermore, it can be argued that central setting of standards need not imply central control of operations. For many years, for example, there has been a rigorous "quality control" effected through legislation and regulation, monitored by the Inspectorate of Constabulary. As a selector, for 10 years, of senior police officers seeking to achieve chief officer rank, I was well aware of the reality of national standards of ability and performance.
No one would seriously oppose the principle that policing should be efficient and effective, and that police officers, from the most senior chief constable to the most recently joined constable - everyone in the U.K. police starts as a constable - should be both competent and honest. Equally, no one could seriously claim that all is perfect the way it is. There undoubtedly are instances of inefficiency, incompetence and unacceptable behaviour. It is also true to say that attitudes within the police have been slow to respond to changes in society: women chief constables are a quite recent phenomenon, and recruitment, and promotion, of ethnic minority police officers has been disappointing.There are nevertheless genuine concerns about central control by a government which does not have a universally admired record of efficiency, or sensitivity to the wishes of the public. There is a strong case for tackling the need for greater collaboration in using resources, but central control is not necessarily the only way to achieve it. The British tradition of controversy in this aspect of national life remains alive and well.Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org