Thursday, 30 August 2012

Politics and Policing: Incompetent Scaremonger?

I am not an expert on the police, something which will become apparent over the next few lines, but I found a letter in my local paper castigating an independent candidate for the Kent PCC role today quite interesting so I'm going to respond in my own way. 

The letter suggested that the candidate was an incompetent scaremonger to suggest that politicians weren't already involved in the police force by running under the banner of keep politics out of policing. The premise for this argument was that politicians make the law. So I dusted off my memories of studying a politics unit at university and considered the question, where do politicians and the police currently overlap. 

Firstly, I considered separation of powers. Our police force could be seen as controlled by the executive (government) through the Home Office and the numerous homogeneous targets it loves to set. The laws are made by our legislature (parliament) which obviously affects the police and our judiciary (criminal justice system) decides who has broken those laws and decides the consequences within the legal framework. The question is, though, do politicians already control the police?

As I mentioned, the Home Office gets to set targets. These give a strategic millstone to the police that I'm sure they love. The Home Office also, one assumes, sets basic funding which ensures that these targets are in the forefront of the mind, but is this controlling the police? I would say not really as, from my experience in education, targets are there to be lived with, but don't completely alter what you do day to day (unless things go horribly wrong). So, I'd say that the Home Office has some influence, but doesn't rule the roost. 

The law is set by parliament and that is full of politicians. Does that mean the police, who must investigate potential breaches of the law, are controlled by politicians? Again, there is some control here, but does it have a day to day effect? Obviously, if something becomes legal or illegal, it changes what the police have to investigate, but does that give them a strategic steer? I suspect this is the case to a degree, but that this comes mostly via guidelines from the Home Office, who we dealt with above. In fact, I suspect the biggest danger where politicians in parliament are concerned is where they confer discretionary powers on the police or fail to repeal bad laws, as this reduces police accountability to the public at large.

So far I've established, in my own mind at least, that politicians via the Home Office control the police to a degree. But what about the police authorities? I've had a look into them and have been hit by a sense of deja vu. They seem to have exactly the same type of control as the Home Office, but with perhaps even greater strategic control through the ability to appoint senior officers and their accountability role. They also have some politician appointees, who mirror the political make-up of the relevant council, meaning politicians have at least some control through this set-up as well.

At this stage I begin to wonder if the whole keep politics out of policing line really is a bit pointless. We've got the government via the Home Office, Parliament via the law and county councils via the police authorities all sticking their noses into the police and they're all run by politicians. The thing is, though, they are all run by politicians but none of those politicians have absolute control and none of them represent only one political viewpoint. Also, in the case of the police authorities, there are non-political appointees to act as a foil. What we face in the PCC role is a single political individual having massive strategic influence on our police forces.  

So, perhaps keep politics out of policing is about limiting the control that one person's political ideology has over the strategic and day to day running of our police forces. It is true that politics affects the police and that politicians have an element of control, but the PCC role will give that level of control to a single party politician who will have only one guiding force, the party line. The fact that they are elected for a limited period isn't enough to stop that being a scary thought. That's the reason why, for me, keep politics out of policing is the most competent and comforting campaign slogan I've heard, even though I'm plainly not an expert on policing.

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