The police are the ultimate frontline service. Forever patrolling the hypersensitive interface between individual and state, responsible to both, the cops are a litmus test of both public-sector reform and social health. As the riots cruelly exposed, on both counts they now are up in front of the beak. What went wrong?
In brief, the police reflect in microcosm everything that has gone awry with UK public services, operationally and philosophically, and their current behaviour has to be understood in this light. Seduced and browbeaten by consultants and governments into dependence on technology and scale, fatally distanced from their ‘customers’, they have unwittingly contributed to the unravelling of the social fabric of which the rule of law is the last symbolic fraying thread.
Like the NHS the police are an ex-national treasure whose once-clear outlines are now hopelessly blurred. Ironically, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of an unarmed, civilian, consent-based local force – far from it. The problem is that it no longer corresponds to what the police do or in many cases think of themselves. It’s not that they are behind the times: it’s that they’ve forgotten, or been made to forget, their history and purpose, making their attempts at modernisation either directionless or geared to muscular reinforcement of an authority of which, as with the Cheshire cat, only the image remains.
Constitutionally, unlike in many other countries, the UK police are not an arm of the state. There is no national police force: the cops are partly paid for by and accountable to us, the citizens, and pace Theresa May, who wanted the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to be ‘a single-minded crime-fighter’, their remit is much wider: to prevent crime, reassure the community and keep the Queen’s Peace. The Cheshire Constabulary, for example, aims to ‘make people safe and feel safe’.
As the riots showed only too clearly, reassurance and preventing crime require the police to be an integral part of their society, as much part of the street scene as the pub, church, school or London taxi. Unfortunately, over recent years the bobby has gone virtual. Writing in the FT recently
, Jonathan Foreman noted that while US forces, including New York, had successfully gone back to an updated version of Sir Robert Peel’s local beat policing, the Met (and many regional forces) were heading in the opposite direction. Instead of being upfront and ‘out there’, they have retreated into a reactive, passive policing model based on technology in the shape of CCTV and computers as the tool of choice for enforcing the law.
Complete with call centres at the front and expensive CRM databases at the back, this is, of course, our old friend the industrial model of service that has fractured and driven up the costs of every other public service. For the police, as events of recent weeks have made explosively clear, it has been even more damaging. As Foreman pointed out, monitoring trouble on screen and screeching to the scene with sirens wailing may seem more dashing than pavement-bashing, but one of its effect is to leave ‘a vacuum of authority’ in the public space which is quickly filled by streetwise kids who are much quicker to suspend their disbelief than their elders. Unfortunately, as the cops have discovered, nicking offenders caught on camera after the event does nothing to make people feel safe - a vital part of the job. Security cameras don’t interpret body language or tell youths to buzz off home – in short, deter. Only flesh-and-blood officers do that, and on most streets it's an event to see one. No wonder that it was the police who looked dazed in their own spotlights when when the looters struck.
Overreliance on technology does more harm. It puts a screen between police and citizens, turning the latter into ‘customers’ whose only, increasingly truculent, stake in local policing is querying whether they are getting value for money, and interaction into transaction. As with the banks, it’s almost impossible to contact the police informally, and getting into a police station these days is more Assault on Precinct 13 than a visit to Dock Green. When an award-winning beat copper was asked on the radio a couple of years ago how he kept his neighbourhood so peaceful he replied cheerfully: ‘Answering the phone.’ The better he became at sorting out local disturbances, the more calls he got, the better his intelligence and the quieter the streets. The equipment needed for this miracle of public order? A mobile and a bike. Operated, of course, by a brain.
In this context it’s welcome news, reinforced at a conference on 13 September by police minister Nick Herbert, that the coalition is committed to encourage local innovation and ‘sweep away’ the central police targets that have done so much to handcuff policing progress. He lauded the initiative of the Cheshire force, which a year ago took the radical step of rethinking the way it worked to respond to a simple, fundamental question: to keep people safe, who do we need where?
The result is ‘the biggest change to policing in my lifetime’, according to the deputy chief constable. When it queried the Orwellian mantra of scale and technology, Cheshire found, as in the example above, that really local policing not only met the purpose better: it was also far cheaper. Cheshire now gets more officers to incidents faster, has almost no backlogs and much less bureaucracy. As confidence rises and costs drop away, police chiefs think they can make cashable savings of £20m over the next four years and boost public confidence at the same time.
Not shown in the figures is one other huge plus: surging morale as officers stop acting as crime clerks and start being real coppers again, using common sense rather than a rule book to sort problems on the spot. ‘Careful, boss, you’re in danger of improving the morale of the constabulary,’ one officer quipped to Cheshire top brass. Obvious when you say it, public and police confidence can only grow together – illustrating, incidentally, another counterintuitive public-sector truth: civil engagement (aka the Big Society) is the result of functioning public service, not a substitute for it.
Like other public services, the police have contributed to the decay of public engagement – the erosion, as historian Tony Judt describes it in Ill Fares the Land, of the ‘thick mesh of social interaction and public goods’ through privatisation, outsourcing and the incursion of the market until there’s nothing left to bind the citizen to the state except the thinnest membrane of authority and obedience. We’ve all seen what happens when that membrane breaks. Repairing it through relationships that are local, personal and ‘out there’ is now as urgent a police task as responding to any external threat.