Sunday, 26 September 2010

Mistrust, technology and the failures of modern policing

Sir Paul Stevenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner (or “Scotland Yard Chief” as the papers like to put it) has observed that the police have lost the public’s trust. In what amounted to a veiled criticism of his fellow top coppers, Sir Paul said:

‘This is more to do with the psychological contract between the citizen and police. And occasionally the citizen might be forgiven for thinking the psychological contract has been broken. They are on the streets and police are in buildings and vehicles, not doing other things. That is the critical issue,' he said.

‘It is a psychological contract, we are not saying the public should do this on their own. We should be out there. We should be saying, 'we want to be on the streets on your behalf. We want to make them safe'.’

He added: ‘Too often in recent years police have fallen into the trap of engaging in social engineering and associated social work, filling gaps left by other agencies. In years gone by we have lost the sense of the importance of visible street patrols - effecting as best as we can, uniform governance of the streets and public places, owning the streets on behalf of the public so that we can enjoy using them.’

Over recent days I have had cause to think about the relationship between the ordinary person and the police. For various reasons the matter of the police, how they operate and the nature of modern policing has cropped up and Sir Paul’s observations struck me as being significant.

Last week, I chaired Bradford Council’s Safer & Stronger Communities Scrutiny Committee where we received a report into “serious acquisitive crime” from officials including a police inspector. In case you don’t know, “serious acquisitive crime” covers domestic burglary, theft of and from a motor vehicle, and robbery.

During the discussion one councillor – as it happens, a Labour councillor – was uncompromising in his criticism of the police’s performance. And it’s hard to take issue with him (representing as he does one of Bradford’s most crime-ridden wards) as he complained that there had been too many excuses for the failure to reduce levels of burglary in the City. What worried me was that the police response was to wave shrouds – ‘it will get much worse after the cuts’ – rather than to address the historic failure. I am reminded that West Yorkshire Police could find 1,600 officers to police fewer that a thousand protesters but are unable to get enough policemen out there catching burglars.

Instead, as Sir Paul noted, police officers are safely and warmly ensconced in comfortable offices away from the questioning, informed engagement with the public that should be the essence of policing. The system falls back on failed technology as a replacement for real people.

CCTV – in Bradford city centre where millions has been spent installing one of the most comprehensive systems for surveillance, the pictures cannot (in most cases) be used for evidential purposes as they are not good enough. And where cameras can zoom in on a suspect, the people operating the system fail more often than not to do this. A waste of money as a system but worse, an excuse for the police to withdraw from patrolling on foot

ANPR – again police in Bradford are forever extolling the wonders of the “automatic number plate recognition” system that rings the city. But this really achieves nothing where plates are obscured, cars are stolen or the numbers are false. Again we replace engaging with the public by sitting before a screen.

Helicopters – hardly a night passes without the police chopper taking to the skies tracking some criminal of other. But again, the chopper can’t do anything other than follow someone, can’t act quickly enough to deal with events on the ground and is very expensive. People want coppers on the streets not in the skies.

Fancy radio systems – police forces spent untold millions on sophisticated radio systems allowing greater communications “security” and a more rapid, secure response. Which, of course, is why every copper uses the mobile phone!

I could go on to talk about over-complicated statistical analysis systems, some really sexy GIS (as a map geek I love this but as a politician and taxpayer I see no point) and loads of really smart souped up motors to hare about in. This is a failed system.

I now hear – from the decent folk who used to trust the police - endless stories of the rudeness of police officers, the targeting of minor offences by middle class people and a complete obsession with minor infractions. If the “twitter joke trial” was a one-off example of over-reaction it would be serious but it is not a one-off example of our criminal justice system’s overkill. Just this weekend I’ve heard of how police use questioning to trap people into admission (before any arrest or issuing of a ticket), how an angry motoring incident is blown up into arrests, charges and criminal investigation and how police officers collude to protect one of their own from allegations of assault.

I do not know whether all these tales are true but the police should be very concerned. Decent, folk living ordinary lives and causing no trouble no longer trust or respect the police – they see the cops not as a community force protecting them but as a threat. Almost as some kind of occupying army – the enforcement arm of a nannying, interfering, controlling Government.

1 comment:

Hortense said...

The writer thinks that "the targeting of minor offences by middle class people" on the part of the police is objectionable. Is the targeting of minor offences by working class people therefore acceptable?