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17 August 2011

My zero tolerance for these politicised police chiefs

They have forgotten their most important directive: they police with our consent.

By Graeme Archer

It’s always ironic to misuse the word “ironic”, and I may be about to do so. But isn’t there something ironic in the sight of police “leaders” decrying the Tory insight (that what we partly need is some citizen-directed political control over policing priorities, via elected commissioners), by taking to the airwaves and the blogosphere to indulge in, ah, politics? The officers’ officer corp has been anything but apolitical since last Monday.

The inverted commas around “leaders” is at least partially deserved, I think. Last Monday, the police held back and didn’t use force to quell the rioters. On Tuesday, they behaved like a police force again, and within 36 hours the riots were extinguished. When the PM made this point — I don’t claim its undeniable truth, but he spoke for many of us in the boroughs affected — he didn’t receive an apology or explanation from the acting Met commissioner Tim Godwin; instead, he received political abuse.

Supporting the use of sufficient force in the face of violent looting, as an aside, does not equate to a requirement to turn a blind eye to outrages such as the assault on Ian Tomlinson, as the Mayor of London appeared to hint in his Telegraph article on Monday.

It’s not hard, in my mind at least, to differentiate between the two, and I was disappointed at the normally eloquent Boris’ apparent conflation of them.

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It shouldn’t require saying that criticism of police leaders does not imply criticism of rank-and-file officers (my brother-in-law is a serving officer), but equally, honest appreciation of the calibre of men such as he does not translate into a blank Tory cheque for whatever words issue from Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), who also saw fit to attack the Prime Minister, as well as taking the opportunity to insert a stiletto into the candidacy of the American Bill Bratton, putative applicant for Met Commissioner. What is ACPO for? What use is it? Sir Hugh had a distinguished career. It’s a shame to tarnish it through association with this top cops’ trade union.

The PM touched on an important point in his impressive speech yesterday, about the need for cultural, as well as legislative and operational, changes. The Lib Dems may be substantively irrelevant to any discussion about, well, certainly this topic. (“Oh let’s not be knee-jerk,” wails Simon Hughes. Sometimes, Simon, a jerk of the knee is exactly the right response to a threat). Unfortunately we require them for our anti-Labour majority in parliament. The question I suspect I’m not the only Tory to ponder, however, is: even if we weren’t bound up with the Liberals, and could remove the Human Rights Act from the statute book, would much change?

Or have both the attitudes, and the litigious culture it has engendered, made concrete the cultural reflexes of the leaders of our institutions, those reflexes which Tories abhor?

I worry about the answer to that when the police have spokesmen like this superintendent, who spoke thus over Twitter:

Political talk of ‘Zero tolerance policing’ is a bit like wearing flares, comes in to fashion once every 20 years, then gets forgotten about.

If my Tory fear is right, then it underlines the need to reconnect police leaders with the public they serve, via elected Commissioners. I doubt the superintendent I quoted would forget about zero-tolerance, were his boss directly elected by people who demanded it. (He’s probably an excellent officer, and it’s unfair to lift one tweet from his timeline without also recording that the many others suggest a dedicated man. But he should not be twittering such political opposition to the will of the Prime Minister).

In London the situation is murkier than elsewhere, since both the Mayor (for whom we vote) and the Home Secretary (for whom we do not) have some weird joint accountability for the leader of the Met. Accountability, like a problem, is halved when it is shared. Take the counter-terrorism duty from the Met and place it directly under the aegis of the Home Office, and thus parliament. Give the Mayor clear accountability to Londoners for what happens on our streets.

And what of Sir Hugh, with his elegant put-down of an American? Is it impossible to imagine the Met having any better leadership than that which it’s enjoyed the last ten years or so?

We’ve had Brian Paddick declare his fondness for anarchy, preside over a disastrous experiment with drugs policing in Lambeth, then give up on his police career in order to cavort in a jungle and run as a joke candidate for mayor. We’ve watched several of the recent top officers being humiliated in the Commons over their approach to phone-hacking.

We had a Commissioner who was in place for a ridiculously short space of time, before (needlessly, in my opinion) resigning over some trivia about post-operative recuperation. The woman who was in direct command the day that Jean Charles de Menezes was executed (sorry: not an execution; the Met were eventually prosecuted under Health and Safety laws) has been rewarded with control of the specialist crime division.

And who could forget Ian Blair, Tony’s special little enforcer — the trail-blazer, in many ways, of this politicised pack — ever eager to make the dubious case that what the Met really needed was the ability to lock us all up, without charge, for months. These are recent Met leaders who spring to mind. Is Sir Hugh so sure that no outsider could improve upon them? Or that, by extension, we shouldn’t be directly involved in setting their priorities?

Whether Mr Bratton is the answer or not isn’t quite my point (though I think he may well be a good answer). The leadership of the police may have forgotten their most important directive: that they police with our consent. Our consent: not that of the barristers at the Matrix chambers. Consent, in the UK, is best expressed through the medium of election; however unsatisfactory that may seem to ACPO.