Why do you have a police force? Well it’s obvious isn’t it; to keep law and order and arrest offenders. Sir Robert Peel back in 1829 created a police force because society was becoming more complex as a result of the industrial revolution but also to avoid having to use the military to deal with civil disorder.
Countries also have a police force to do things that other people don’t want to do. When others say it is too dangerous or too violent or when others say it is not in my job description or we’re going on strike it is the police force which is asked to intervene. In many countries in the world this has a very sinister side with police forces, many paramilitary in style, enforcing the will of a dictatorship against the majority.
In this country we pride ourselves on policing by consent that this is a democracy that the police are democratically accountable and answerable to the law. On the other hand policing often operates in a grey area where it enforces laws which many people disagree with and where certainly in the past society turned a blind eye to some of the methods used by officers as long as they were taking criminals off the street.
Policing is a disciplined service and officers and required to obey lawful orders. There has been limited room for officers to object to the methods being used or to object to what they are being asked to do. When you are dealing with a major disturbance on the street there isn’t time for a case conference about it.
This is an important issue in terms of the current debate about police integrity and transparency. There has been a string of negative stories including the Hillsborough revelations and the monitoring of those giving evidence at the Lawrence enquiry. This is not just about what happened in these cases but also what happened to those officers who raised concerns at the time.
This debate is similar to the one in the Health Service about “whistleblowing”. The argument is clear, the best protection for patients is that staff feel able to raise concerns about a procedure or about the conduct or practise of a colleague which may endanger patient safety. In policing there is a call from some politicians for more transparency but I think it needs to go far wider than this.
Police officers carrying out their duties must be assured that when they are carrying out investigations or operations that the tactics and methods being used are understood and supported by legislation, politicians, the media and public opinion. So the police need to be more transparent about what they are doing but there also needs to be the legislation to cover police doing the things the public expect them to investigate crime and deal with disorder.
A desire for transparency does not sit well with too strong a thirst for personal accountability or the drive to find someone to blame. For staff to be open about mistakes they may have made or dilemmas they face they can’t feel that they will immediately be subject to discipline. This is a difficult balance. Deliberate wrongdoing, lack of honesty unreasonable use of force has to be investigated under misconduct procedures or the criminal law but many other issues are not so clear cut. The police like many public servants operate in a complex world working with other agencies, under the pressure of lack of resources and under the pressure of time. Often when things go wrong it is not one person’s fault but often a case of a person doing their best in difficult circumstances. Transparency cannot just be about publishing minutes of meetings or details of remuneration packages it has to be about that element of staff feeling that they can be open about the challenges they face and the methods they are being asked to use.
Police officers feel under a lot of pressure at the moment. There is no question that morale is affected by the current negative stories about policing but at the same time no evidence that they are letting this affect how they serve the public. It is hard to judge how the media coverage affects the confidence of the broader public. On Sunday I gave an interview to Sky News about police morale but then went on the Mega Mela music festival in Manchester talking to the organisers and to other members of the local community. They were very positive about all the help they had received from the force and the general relationship with local officers and PCSOs. They were not talking about these national issues.
How to take this forward? Well, we have to investigate those cases which have been raised and bring them to a successful conclusion. On the other hand we cannot ask officers to continue to work under this constant stream of negative stories and find a way of putting in systems which will give us the best chance of preventing this happening in the present and in the future. This requires a constant focus on high standards of professionalism and conduct and a performance regime which recognises good service and ethical behaviour. A system which allows staff to concentrate in the greatest threat harm and risk and those things most important to the public rather than hitting a target for its own sake. We are also proposing creating an independent ethics committee which will allow staff to raise issues of concern where they think that aspects of force policy or practise may conflict with the public interest or their own duty as public servants.
While all this is going on we continue to do our best to serve the public of Greater Manchester. Particular concerns at the moment are an increase in the number of thefts involving iPhones, tablets and other devices. These are obviously expensive items but we are all now more likely to be openly using them in the street which gives the opportunity for them to be snatched by the thieves sometimes by offenders on pedal cycles. At the public forum with the Police and Crime Commissioner in Oldham last week we talked about the problem of anti-social behaviour and how such issues often need all the different agencies to work together to get a long term solution. This Saturday we will hold a conference for all our Homewatch coordinators and day to day we have a number of serious incidents we are investigating at the moment. While we look at events in the past it is just as important to concentrate on the protection of the public in the present.
Sir Peter Fahy