A controversial newspaper article on the state of British policing is fair comment – but still misguided, says Assistant Chief Constable Gareth Morgan, (pictured).
On September 15, Peter Hitchens wrote a piece for the Mail on Sunday entitled “Get rid of the guns, cars and Tasers and we might just end up with real policemen”.
On initial reading I found it difficult to establish the central thrust of the article but anticipated that as a conduit to provoke a furore it was probably doomed to succeed. I resisted the temptation to enter the fray and opted instead to make a large pan of mushroom soup. This felt more constructive.
I have since re read the original piece and the subsequent commentary in Peter’s blog where he develops his argument that the Police Service has essentially become remote from communities, lost sight of its founding goals and become a belligerent paramilitary force led by a liberal elite who have colluded since the mid 1960s to dismantle Peel’s model of policing.
This hypothesis is supported by extensive historical research and analysis and has been outlined in a number of publications in recent years by Peter. This commentary on policing is central to a range of Peter’s arguments about the ‘state’ of Britain and public services in particular. To argue that Peter is unfamiliar with policing and that he is presenting a case from a position of ignorance is therefore folly.
His personal interpretation of events and developments in policing is well articulated from a particular perspective; his ideological and philosophical stance about the role of the state vis-a-vis the citizen is equally well documented.
But, let’s be clear. However well researched and presented these arguments may be they remain Peter Hitchens’ view of the world. And as I am sure he would concede he makes no claim to have a monopoly on the truth. He is presenting an argument. It is beholden on those who disagree to present an alternative case for policing and not simply become agitated at the idea of someone having a different outlook. The fact that Peter’s view of policing is promulgated in a mass circulation newspaper may be irritating to those who disagree but it doesn’t alter his right to have a view, even if he’s wrong.
And for the record I believe he is wrong in his analysis and conclusions about policing and in the tone of the article.
I have always been and expect to remain wedded to Peel’s Principles of Policing. I don’t think there will ever be a better mission statement.
I agree with Peter’s description of policing moving away from preventative models and that linked to changes in technology policing has become more remote in the last 40 years. But we then part company. I believe that the ‘rediscovery’ of neighbourhood policing and the self evident truth that policing is better delivered locally, in partnership and with communities remains at the heart of British policing. It is at risk in these times of austerity but the service can and should make choices to invest in this the most visible foundation of policing by consent.
Room for improvement
Having spent a day in court where a police officer was sent to prison for misconduct in public office I don’t need reminding that policing is not perfect. The fact that I sat in the court with the detectives who tenaciously pursued their fellow officer for his betrayal of their oath reminded me that for all those who would seek to undermine policing there are legions who will seek to support it. But as a service we need to recognise legitimate challenge and criticism and seek every opportunity to learn and improve. Many outside policing would contend that this is an impossible ask for us as a service. I know that seeking to be the best and to learn from mistakes is every day business for the vast majority. We need to continue to listen and we need to be less defensive.
Peter Hitchens’ argument may be predicated on sound research principles but by his own account they are limited in reality. Patrol with colleagues in a London borough combined with ride alongs in Johannesburg and Dallas will undoubtedly give an insight into policing but not, in my view, one that can be used as the basis of a sustained critique on the complexities and challenges of policing modern Britain.
I recognise the need to use compelling anecdotes to colour an argument but this should not be confused with evidence.
The focus on vehicles, helicopters and uniforms is perhaps the most intriguing section of the article. I want to see more officers on patrol out and about in local communities. I also need them to respond to 999 calls and to deploy to critical incidents. As ever there is a balance to be struck and I recognise the concerns of many communities that policing is too remote.
We need to do better.
The importance of transport and technology
But flogging the helicopter and scrapping fast response cars will not advance the case for policing to become more responsive to local needs and to rediscover the Peelian Principles. Even Sir Robert accepted that crime would need to be responded to and investigated notwithstanding the primary goal being prevention.
Significant resources are committed to the investigation of crime – much of it unseen or understood by the wider public. Again we need to revisit how the service explains the challenges it confronts on behalf of communities to ensure that the reality of modern policing is not undermined by docudramas, TV detectives or lazy journalism.
I am not a journalist and I have a rule about not telling other people how to do their jobs. I welcome the opportunity to be challenged about policing and I believe I should be scutinised and held to account. So, I wish that Peter Hitchens’ perfectly legitimate right to promulgate opinions on policing could have been written in a way that invited discourse and discussion rather than polarising opinion. The opportunity to use evidence in support of an argument has been lost in anecdote and ideology.
It could have been different but as in many things it’s about making the right choice and I fear there was an overwhelming desire to add to the already overburdened bandwagon.
ACC Morgan is the Chief Officer for Local Policing at both West Mercia and Warwickshire Police