Corrupt and confused?

This summer, the police faced the crises of phone hacking and riots. The force is changing, but in the wrong way
August 24, 2011
The British police: a conservative institution that struggled to adjust to post-second world war change

Images of police in full riot gear against a backdrop of burning buildings and marauding looters have seared themselves into the collective memory. The riots, sparked by the police shooting of a man in Tottenham (a non-police-issue gun was found at the scene), have challenged the reputation of Britain’s constabularies. In so doing, they sharpened concerns about policing that emerged a month earlier during the News International phone-hacking scandal.

These are the kind of events that can corrode long-term confidence in the police and shake the public sense of security. They have also undermined Britain’s international reputation. But the questions raised by these dramas are complex. Is there really a big problem with police corruption? Should police be blamed for provoking the riots, or criticised for their response? More broadly, what does Britain—or any country—want from its police, in an age that emphasises individual rights and liberties, and where social relations will probably be more fragile and prone to conflict? How should we measure success?

At the heart of policing is a set of defining tensions that have to be reconciled. The police are agents of the state, and yet need to be politically independent to command public respect. They are authorised to use coercive force to stop violent disorder. They are in close contact with criminality, but need to preserve their integrity and resist corruption. They must uphold law and order without resorting to methods that undermine it.

The difficulty of achieving this balance was acknowledged at the birth of Britain’s modern police force. In 1829, when Robert Peel, the home secretary, was drawing up his proposals for the Metropolitan Police, he began by identifying the failings of other nascent systems. He rejected the French system of plainclothes spies, who collected intelligence for the state. Nor did Peel want the police to be a domestic military force, like the Italian carabinieri—in part, because of the disastrous British experience of Peterloo in 1819, when the cavalry and yeomanry were mobilised to disperse protesters demanding parliamentary reform. Eleven deaths and hundreds of injuries resulted.

Instead, Peel’s pragmatic aim was to create a force that was not imposed on the populace, but embedded within it. Using visible, uniformed patrols, Peel’s police were to be different from their immediate predecessors, the Bow Street Runners and other “thief-takers,” who would track down and return stolen goods—for a fee.

Peel’s model struck a delicate balance between liberty and order, accountability and independence. Just how delicate that balance was is shown by the early attrition rate; only a sixth of the 3,000 officers originally employed in 1829 remained in post by 1833, the majority pushed out because of their sharp practices. Peel, and the first two commissioners of the Metropolitan Police, Rowan and Mayne, recognised that police should be clearly separate from those they policed, but also needed connections with their local communities to be effective. It was for this reason that Peel’s adage, “the police are the people, and the people are the police,” achieved such resonance.

If there was a golden age of British policing, it was perhaps between 1945 and the early 1960s. During this period, the police had little political oversight and were viewed as an essentially benign influence on society. The legitimacy of the force was settled. But this golden age has been somewhat mythologised. Research suggests that, out of public view, police were routinely using violence to impose order. Oral histories and police memoirs suggest that this dispensation of street justice and low-level corruption was fairly common. A decline in police status began in the 1950s as the debate about policing became more heated.

The past 50 years have been marked by oscillations in police strategy. There are good reasons for this. Policing is charged with preserving and protecting the social order. As such, the police force is a conservative institution, and one that struggled to adjust to accelerating societal change. Periodic crises have forced change on the police, such as the Yorkshire Ripper case, which showed up police inefficiency at data sharing, and the Stephen Lawrence case, which threw a stark light on the police’s failure to adjust to multiculturalism.

The Scarman report, which followed the Brixton riots of 1981, found the police had lost the consent of the community in the run-up to the disturbances. Extensive efforts went into community policing in an attempt to secure this consent (as in Los Angeles after the 1990s riots). However, community policing also provoked counter-reactions, aiming to prevent close relations with the public from corrupting police practices.

This summer’s twin crises raise questions about these efforts over 30 years. The riots question whether community policing has failed, and the News International revelations suggest that relationships with sources have been prone to undue influence. What should we make of these apparent failures?

David Cameron’s diagnosis of the initial police response in Tottenham was “too few, too slow, too timid”—although that was a description that might equally describe early ministerial reactions. Others suggested that community policing, fear of lawsuits and lack of money had made the forces “soft” or ineffective.

Cameron’s analysis ignores the fact that controlled violence is difficult. Violence is chaotic and occurs in emotionally charged situations. This affects both individual officers and the decisions of their commanders.

It is true that recent experience has given the police reason to be hesitant. The death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests and the controversy over the use of “kettling” has brought down a wave of criticism on police methods. (Kettling involves corralling a crowd into a confined space and holding it in place, often for several hours, hemmed in by lines of police.) Ultimately, each officer is legally accountable for his or her actions and this legal framing is explicitly intended to act as a regulatory brake on their recourse to force. The law has also inadvertently curtailed the numbers of police deployed during riots. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) sets guidelines for how suspects are managed by police; the result is that arrests take officers away from the frontline during disturbances.

It is also true that police have had to contend with financial pressures. There has been a real terms increase in funding in excess of 30 per cent over the past decade, but the majority has gone into bolstering counter-terrorism capacity. But although bread-and-butter policing has not had anything like this increase, there is evidence that it has made good use of what it has had. Data from the British Crime Survey shows that, since 1995, crime has fallen sharply in Britain.

Above all, there is evidence that community policing has succeeded. The British Crime Survey shows that since the introduction in 2007-08 of neighbourhood policing, where police respond to local concerns, public confidence in the police has risen and concern about antisocial behaviour has dropped.

One of the few studies to have examined Operation Trident (the Met’s unit dealing with the most serious crimes in London’s black communities) showed that neighbourhood policing is crucial. Trident has over 300 officers and a cadre of analysts, yet studies in Brixton revealed that, in confronting gang-based gun violence, it was the local cops, who had been on the beat for years and were embedded in the community, that were of vital importance. These officers knew the local crews and could recognise them on sight: when crimes occurred, Trident benefited from their local knowledge. But this is not a “softening” of police policy: the high numbers of stop-and-searches conducted on young men from ethnic minority backgrounds attest to this.

This is not to say that neighbourhood policing is always the solution, or that it is perfect. But this experience does counter the charge that two decades of community policing have been a failure. It shows that effective social control depends as much upon persuasion as coercion—a point worth remembering in the current clamour for zero-tolerance policing.

However, the riots have raised a new question: about whether policing methods might need to change because the nature of protest is changing—as are the reasons for it.

Historically, severe economic contractions lead to increasing crime rates. Home Office statistical modelling predicted that, at our present point in the economic cycle, there would be greater levels of crime and that increasing theft and violence would slowly take hold in a number of deprived inner-city neighbourhoods. Instead, there was a far more intense convulsion.

In the analysis after the riots, there has been the usual mix of claim, counter-claim, speculation, recrimination and rumour. Explanations have ranged from individual pathology to macro-economic forces and failures of routine policing. In due course, however, it will be found that an array of influences pulled individuals and groups into rioting. Some will have engaged in political protest against the social order or police. For others, it was criminal opportunity. The majority will have got involved due to peer influence and the prospect of social status. Collective disorder affords the chance for exhilarating excitement.

Several recent cases support the case that the nature of collective disorder has been changing. In 2006 during unrest at the G20 summit in Melbourne, police identified sub-groups of protesters who stretched the police by launching quick assaults in different places before melting back into the crowd. Similarly, during the student fees demonstration in London last year, small groups of protesters could be observed around the main march. They struck in different places, which inhibited the police’s ability to “kettle” protesters in one location.

Orthodox police public order doctrine was designed to counter large-scale protests, where flashpoints are predictable and targets of anger can be anticipated because of their symbolic value. The workings of fluid, mobile and networked groups practising guerrilla rioting tactics have shown themselves to be immune to such treatment. This is not something that can be resolved through water cannon, or plastic bullets. What is needed is new, more “asymmetric” public order policing, designed to track and disrupt mobile groups. It is misleading to focus on ringleaders. Social media create leaderless and networked forms of collective disorder. The reason that police struggled to grip the problem in London was that they brought 20th-century understanding and tactics to a 21st-century riot.

The riots came during the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal, which raised two accusations against the police. First, that officers sold information to journalists from “secure” databases. Second, that several senior officers—and the upper echelons of the Metropolitan Police in general—were too close to News International and other corporate interests, which meant the initial hacking investigation in 2006 was not pressed home.

Corruption in the police is not new. History is scarred by such cases. The extent of the problem was summed up by Robert Mark, who upon appointment as commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police in 1972, acidly noted that it failed the test of catching more criminals than it employed.

At the same time in the US, the 1970s Knapp Commission found that the New York police department was systemically corrupt from its inception. Officers routinely engaged in taking payoffs from brothels and gambling dens, “shaking down” small businesses, and receiving bribes from drug dealers. In Australia, there has been a series of official inquiries since the 1970s investigating organised police corruption in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.

In Britain, many past scandals have centred on the temptation to conceal incriminating information—for example, when detectives encourage informants to expose their associates in return for not acting on their knowledge of these informants’ crimes. As numerous cases attest, it is only a short step from this to the police soliciting favours or money to keep quiet about crime. Certain aspects of police work—combating drugs, vice and organised crime—seem especially open to corruption by virtue of proximity. Most corruption stems from the low visibility of much police work. Corruption is especially hard to detect when it involves manipulation of information, not money.

Few would contend that police in most western states are institutionally corrupt, even if that is true in some developing countries. Institution-wide problems in the policing of developed nations tend to take the more subtle form of “undue influence”—the central charge during the News International scandal. Police and journalists have always had a close working relationship. From the police side, co-operating with journalists can generate intelligence that helps with investigations. While the media can be critical of the police, research demonstrates that overall, crime coverage is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the policing. The question is not whether police and journalists should work closely, but when their dealings overstep the mark.

In the case of News International, the accusations that officers sold journalists information have not been substantiated, at least so far. But it is clear that the relationship had become much too close. So what is to be done? The News International charges, and the riots, will strengthen the call for more transparency in police work, and for more sensitivity to public feeling. Such calls will gain traction because they fit with the coalition government’s police reform programme, as well as the deeper transformative currents that are reshaping police-community relations. But, at the same time, recent events raise difficult questions for a number of the specific reform proposals that the government has set out. Even before the News International scandal, the information age was already changing policing and inducing a new transparency. There has been a growing realisation within police agencies that they cannot assume that they will be able to hide awkward details.

The government, inspired partly by Conservative thinking on the Big Society, has proposed directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), prompted by the notion that police chiefs are too insulated from the public. However, the Mayor of London’s control of the Met was seen as a test run for PCCs and so far, two commissioners and an assistant commissioner have resigned for reasons of political expediency.

Meanwhile, significant funding cuts loom. Despite warnings, the government is planning to cut spending on police by around 20 per cent over the next four years. A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary estimated that this will lead to the loss of 34,000 police staff.

The riposte has been that these cuts return police numbers to 2001 levels. But much has changed since then. Not only have large amounts been spent on counter-terrorism, but there has also been an increasing expectation that police should improve their management of antisocial behaviour and fear of crime, both of which affect many people’s quality of life. The mission has been stretched, at the national and local levels; police now focus on everything from national to neighbourhood security.

The broadening of responsibilities, when combined with political pressures and cuts, has unsettled the police at an institutional level, to the extent that there is now a troubling lack of clarity among senior officers about the purpose of policing. The last two Met Commissioners have resigned despite falling crime rates, which suggests that crime rates are no longer a measure of success; and if not, what is?

A good start would be to return to first principles and clarify what it is that we want policing to do, who the police should be, what they are trying to prevent, or propagate, and how to measure performance. Austerity and a summer of disturbance provide an opportunity to be far more radical in our thinking.

Rather than doing “more with less”—a mantra for the austerity era—police should aim to do “less with more.” That is, they should aim to intervene less, but with more impact. Assuming that resources will continue to shrink, police should encourage communities to participate more. When money is tight police should be more explicit in focusing on the problems that are most harmful to individual and community resilience.

Instead of asking these fundamental questions, the coalition has let the public conversation centre on restructuring the apparatus of police governance. This is simply a default political solution, devised by career politicians. It lacks a grasp of policing and the inevitable tensions that lie at its heart. For without an appreciation of these issues, the government’s strategy will be flawed. It will fail to devise a good answer either to the problems revealed by the News International disclosures, or the wider social dilemmas raised by the burning streets of London. It will certainly not manage what Robert Peel accomplished: to look around, see what works and what fails, and devise a police force fit for a country in the midst of great change.

Experts give their opinions on police reform

Ian Blair: The Politics problem

Recent events have shown the incoherence of police policy. In democracies, political control requires that a single politician or ministry does not dominate. For more than 50 years, Britain has had a tripartite system of home secretary, local police authorities and police chiefs. There was also an agreement that policing should be above party politics.

The Conservative party has traditionally been seen as holding sway over police policy. But in the mid-1990s, Tony Blair devised the phrase “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”: it was then that policing became political. The loss of two Met Commissioners in three years (the first resignations for 120 years) appears to be a result of inserting the additional weight of a mayor into the already overcrowded political structures involved in London’s policing.

The coalition’s view is that policing was too centralised under Labour and that the London mayor should oversee the Met. It wants elected politicians to be responsible for the police in the 42 other forces in England and Wales outside London. This change carries potentially uncomfortable consequences: the rise of populist policies; the erosion of operational independence; and the unwillingness of senior officers to apply for such jobs.

Now there is a fourth problem: the unsuitability of such devolution during crises. During the riots, the home secretary and prime minister circumvented the London mayor, taking apparent responsibility for tactics. It would be harder to do that with 43 elected police and crime commissioners, many with views different to the government’s own.

Ian Blair, Met Commissioner 2005-08, is a crossbench peer


Peter Kellner: A loss of trust

Readers with long memories will know that police scandals are nothing new. Yet the public have traditionally been fans of the men and women in blue. In 1973, Gallup found that 79 per cent thought the police provided good value for money—a higher figure than for schools, hospitals or any other public service. In 1989 Mori reported that more people were satisfied with the police than with the BBC, universities or the legal system.

As late as February 2003, YouGov found that the police scored highly. As the chart shows, 82 per cent trusted their local cops to tell the truth; for senior officers the figure was a healthy 72 per cent. This difference between frontline staff and more distant bigwigs was common to all the groups tested: indeed the ten point difference in the case of the police was less than for any other group, and dramatically less than the 57 point difference in trust between family doctors (trusted by 93 per cent) and hospital managers (only 36 per cent).

But since those halcyon days, the picture has changed. YouGov conducted its latest trust survey in late July this year. In general, we have become a far less trusting nation. The only people in the public realm whose reputations have not suffered are, as it happens, leading Labour and Conservative politicians, but this is largely because so few people trusted either in the first place. (Lib Dem MPs used to outscore their Labour and Tory counterparts, but now lag behind them.)

However, trust has collapsed most in the case of senior police officers. Now, just 49 per cent trust them to tell the truth, a drop of 23 points. Fully half of today’s voters either distrust them or aren’t sure whether to trust them or not. They used to be more trusted than judges; now they lag far behind, for the number trusting judges has scarcely changed (68 per cent then, 66 per cent now). Trust in local police is also down by a well above average 14 points (from 82 per cent to 68 per cent). This is a cause for concern but, unlike the figures for senior police officers, not yet a crisis.

Could these findings be distorted by the timing of the latest survey, at the height of the hacking scandal, when allegations were rife of corrupt relationships between the police and some journalists? Only to a small extent. Other surveys in this series show that trust in the police had fallen sharply beforehand. A year ago, the figures were 66 per cent for bobbies on the beat, and 54 per cent for senior police officers. The sad truth is that the hacking saga did not so much surprise voters as reinforce their mounting scepticism. It will take more than a successful conclusion to the “hackgate” investigations to restore public trust.

Peter Kellner is president of YouGov


Jessica de Grazia: America’s tough frontier

All police forces struggle with abuse of power, corruption, and political interference in cases. How these issues are managed depends on a nation’s laws, institutions and culture.

George Orwell identified “gentleness” and “respect for constitutionalism and legality” as the distinctive features of English civilisation. In policing, this translates into low tolerance of misconduct by police. Thus, when an angry policeman pushes over a citizen and kills him unintentionally, he faces prison. And, when the Met conducts a half-baked investigation into a politically protected target, its commissioner and assistant commissioner resign despite their good records.

America’s long-gone frontier still shapes its society. In New York City in August 2010, a Harlem man was under attack and trying to wrestle a gun from his assailant; four policemen shot him 23 times. He survived but was in jail for six months before a grand jury exonerated him and the police.

A New York police whistleblower is involuntarily sectioned for disclosing misconduct. The traffic tickets of the politically-connected are “fixed.”

Orwell would no doubt recoil in horror.

Jessica de Grazia was a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office from 1975-87. She advises on reform of the British prosecution system


Robert Davies: Policing overseas

Attempts to stimulate good police culture in developing economies usually disappoint. This is because the primary technique is to train officers; but classroom lessons can rarely be put into practice by newly trained police, because they return to inappropriate cultures and inefficient systems that do not promote accountability.

For example, during a training exercise involving the Pakistan police, it was stressed that torture should not be used routinely as a tool to extract confessions. But the trainees felt under enormous pressure to extract confessions in this way because of the demands of their senior officers.

In Iraq in 2005 the coalition put tremendous efforts into training new police, but without any attempt to force the development of appropriate service structures, vision or strategy. In Jamaica, despite 50 years of British support for their police, it has only been the recent engagement of British officers in command positions at assistant commissioner level that has brought change.

Ineffective policing facilitates corruption, the prime beneficiaries of which are politicians. Hence the political will to change the fundamentals is lacking and civil society is too weak to challenge the status quo.

Robert Davies was chief superintendent of the Met, 1969-93, and assistant chief constable and deputy chief constable in Thames Valley Police