Saturday, August 13, 2011

The next big issue

I've noted before that the Tory party has historically been perceived as the party of law and order - capturing that ground was key to Labour's victory in 1997 and when we left office, crime was falling and we had more police officers than at any point in our history. Although Thatcher was no friend of the public sector, she ensured that the police were properly paid and reasonably resourced. Politically, law and order is always a top line subject - consistently towards the top of people's concerns - and is, after all, at the heart of what the state should prioritise, the protection of its citizens. The police are also a service that is consistently trusted by the public, far more than politicians or the media.

All of that makes the current government's attitude to the police all the more surprising. Previously, it has seemed to be labelled in the same way as the rest of the public sector and ripe for 'reform' or 'cutting' as it is better known. The result has been predictable and the government seems to have lost the confidence of the dressing room, with the police staff associations lining up to express dissatisfaction and concern.

16,000 sworn officers are to be released through recruitment freezes and forced retirements. To put that into context, that is the same as firing every officer in the West Midlands, Warwickshire, West Mercia and Staffordshire. To add to that, there are a further 16,000 civilian police posts to be removed and we can expect many of those roles to be filled by officers, taking still more away from frontline policing. No sane person can expect this to leave the quality of policing untouched - although the Home Secretary maintains that it will. 16,000 is also the number of officers from across the country deployed to London to quell the looting that has scarred the capital. Indeed, despite the assurances from the Home Secretary and Nick Clegg, more than half of the British public believe that the police are already under-resourced, despite the best efforts of the chief constables. As Hugh Orde puts it
Chief constables have minimised the impact on the frontline. We will have to have some very honest, straightforward conversations with government in years three and four. We have to understand what sort of service we want and what we want it to do, and not do
That does not sound like a service looking forward to working with tightened budgets, although it should be said that they felt able to work with Labour's planned 12% cuts, but not with the 20% promised by the government.

The scrapping of the world-leading Forensic Science Service has also been criticised as ham-fisted and rushed, as it has forced police services into unexpected and truncated tendering processes with various private providers in what is an experiment in the almost total privatisation of a vital function of our justice system - other countries keep that firmly in public hands. The service may not have been a money spinner, but then the legal system is supposed to administer justice, not turn a profit.

The disorder will put funding of the police straight back on the table - it seems impossible that the police service will be required to cut as deep as the government demanded, so we can surely expect the government to review the situation urgently. If they do not, then it is a fair question to ask if the police would be able to respond to this sort of issue if it were to happen once they have finished their budget cuts. With the security-hungry Olympics only a year away, can Britain afford to risk a repeat of the past few days? Once ministers see the bill for riot damage that will be presented to police services across the country over the next couple of weeks as insurers and others seek redress for their costs, then the reality will finally strike home. This is a massively destructive electoral liability for the Tories - lose this one and they have lost a cornerstone of their political genetic blueprint. The fact that, thus far, the Tories are facing down the police and promising that the cuts must continue is intriguing and will prove to be a political mistake.

That is not to say that the police should not be looking to raise their game. In recent weeks, the News International saga has take a number of police careers and looks likely to take more before it concludes, as vast quantities of previously concealed dirty washing is laundered in the glare of publicity. The Duggan shooting last week typified a mendacious approach to the truth from the police when faced with potential controversy - they spun a story in the favour of the police in the sure knowledge that the fastest story sticks. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, many people will only remember that when stopped and challenged by armed police officers, Duggan opened fire, leaving a bullet embedded in a police officer's radio. The fact that he didn't fire and that the bullet has now been demonstrated to be police issue is indicative of the spin to which the Met press team have been used to putting on a story. Remember the story spread about de Menezes following the shooting - he wore a bulky coat, he ran from police, he vaulted barriers at Stockwell underground station? All untrue, but all stuck in the popular memory, despite being later overtaken by the facts revealed by investigation, but all pushed to friendly correspondents in an attempt to minimise damage to the Metropolitan Police.

But, just as this past week has shown some of the worst and best elements of society, the police have risen to the occasion, after a shaky start when they lost control of parts of London, simply because they were outnumbered and unable to respond fast enough to flashmob disorder, blossoming in one part and then fading away to appear somewhere else. Have a read of Inspector Winter's fine account on his blog and in the Telegraph, an anonymous officer caught up in public order policing away from his day job in specialist surveillance.

The criticisms of the police that I have heard have made me angry.
When you have 20 or 30 officers facing a crowd of hundreds, many of them armed with bricks and petrol bombs, and you know you have to obey the limits of the law even when your attackers are not – well, solutions are just not as simple as critics would have you believe. We were outnumbered, encumbered by our equipment and drained.

Would water cannons and baton rounds have helped? In practical terms, water cannons take time to deploy and the riots were so fast moving that they would have been quickly left behind. Also, their presence would have ramped up the aggression. As for baton rounds, we would immediately have faced an outcry from the usual complainers.
We have trained and trained for this. But in the situations we’ve found ourselves, with riots kicking off all around us, another three starting almost as soon as we had contained one, there was simply no viable way to take back the streets at a stroke.
I have maintained throughout this week that the more repressive forms of crowd control were not the answer to this disorder, both for operational reasons and because they would fundamentally shift the relationship we have developed with a police service that operates with our consent. The correct response was what developed over the next few hours and days - overwhelming numbers of police out on the streets with the mobility to respond and intelligent deployment to flashpoints. That has been followed up by an unprecedented number of suspects being arrested, charged and placed before a court within a matter of hours. Indeed, Inspector Winter revealed that he'd been on a warrant execution where the suspect had slept through the noise of his door being battered down and was awoken by the police, allowing Insp Winter to utter the immortal line 'Get your trousers on, you're nicked' - something he has been waiting fifteen years to do (although we assume he followed it up with the formal caution).

It is a mark of how fractured the relationship between the government and the senior ranks has become that there is a very public spat ongoing between them over who can take the credit for bringing the situation under control, given that the PM, the Mayor of London and the Home Secretary were all on holiday when it kicked off and by the time they returned, plans were already well advanced. The acting commissioner of the Met, Tim Godwin acidly observed, even as senior government members are prowling the riot-hit communities to demonstrate that they care, that
“I think after any event like this, people will always make comments who weren’t there.... The issue around the numbers, the tactics – they are all police decisions and they are all made by my police commanders and myself”

Theresa May has been pushing the line that she ordered the redeployment of numbers of police and a shift in tactics and Sir Hugh Orde has joined the fray
That politicians chose to come back is an irrelevance in terms of the tactics that were by then developing... The more robust policing tactics you saw were not a function of political interference – they were a function of numbers being available"
The Home Secretary yesterday very pointedly praised the front line officers for their efforts in quelling the riots - ignoring the senior officers who made the whole thing work. Intriguingly, a source is suggesting to the Independent that Cameron had to be talked down from putting the army onto the streets, a decision that would have had dramatic consequences for this government and the police. That seems credible, given Cameron's wild promises to deploy water cannon at 24 hours' notice that followed, but is rather disturbing in what it indicates about Cameron's leadership and crisis management skills.

Aside from the lunacy of their plans to cut police numbers - something that nobody outside government believes can possibly leave front line policing unaffected - there is also the ongoing issue of the next Commissioner of the Metropolis. On current form, it seems unlikely that either Godwin or Orde will be in line for the job, although Orde is probably the best one to take on the role of leading a service in crisis at the top command level. Cameron has this whacked-out idea that he wants to appoint an outsider, Bill Bratton, the former chief of police in both New York and LA and credited with turning round both those forces. Frankly, this seems an insult to senior British officers - that not one of them is deemed capable of doing the job and that we should have to turn to someone with no experience whatsoever of the culture of British policing. Ironically, it looks as though Cameron's plans may founder on immigration grounds, but Bratton is to be invited over to consult on riot control. Again, Orde weighs in
The leadership of this service understands policing. We all started where our brave officers were the other day. We start at the bottom, we move up and we learn and we move on.
And through all this, nobody has yet raised the imminent spectre of the elected police commissioner, who would have been the centre of blame for the unrest and disorder, despite having no operational control over the police service in their care. The police are being politicised and it is to their credit that the senior officers are fighting a rearguard action against it. For all their faults, we need an independent police service that is professionally run, not one at the whim of an elected official.

This government is eroding the ability of the police to do its job, it is eroding the political independence of the service and it is demoralising the men and women that we rely on to deliver it. They have lost confidence in their political masters and that should worry us all.

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