The Best Police in the World?

Don’t get me wrong, compared to other countries, I suspect that in England and Wales we have the least worst force. Constables undertake a dull yet potentially dangerous job. My personal dealings with police officers have been courteous and professional. But I’m white and middle-class.

Citizens in uniform? Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence and Plebgate suggests more than a few problems. As with other public-sector workers, the police are supposed to serve we the people. OK, we’re subjects, really.

Back in June, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary published a consultation document on inspecting the police service. Below is a copy of my response:

“The first principal aim of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary’s proposed PEEL evaluations is to ‘improve democratic accountability’ of the nation’s police forces. Organizing the assessment framework around the criteria of efficiency, effectiveness and legitimacy does, at face value, appear to comprise the central concerns of the public about policing.

Two annual inspections: efficiency followed by effectiveness. Both consider legitimacy. Will they? Notwithstanding the needs for economy and minimal disruption to operational policing, the Leveson inquiry and the Hillsborough revelations, as your consultation document admits, has placed the police in a somewhat negative light. ‘Plebgate’ and the Daniel Morgan murder inquiry threatens further public ire.

How is legitimacy to be quantified? While your proposals intend to ‘reflect the victim experience’ through the use of quantitative and qualitative data, next to nothing is mentioned about measuring public perceptions of the police. Polling on behalf of the relevant Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) is, perhaps, one means of assessing confidence. Yet the role of PCCs raises a structural issue: the reality of democratic accountability.

Sir Ian Blair was forced to resign as Metropolitan Police Commissioner when he lost the confidence of Boris Johnson. It would, however, be optimistic to see this as a triumph for local control. A leading authority on policing observed of this tussle: ‘difficulties between ministers, mayors and police chiefs are probably far removed from a locality’s hopes and expectations of their local Bobbies.’[1]

Kevin Hurley, PCC for Surrey, received 26.1% of the vote in the first round of the elections, raised to 53.9% when the second preferences were allocated. His legitimacy rests upon 15.4% of the electorate bothering to cast their ballot.[2]

A cynic may be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at a man with over 30 years of experience at the Metropolitan Police holding the Surrey constabulary to account. Mr Hurley caused controversy, when serving as the City of London Police’s Head of Counter Terrorism and Public Order, when he appeared as a guest speaker at the opening of the £23m Scientology centre.[3] A staunch advocate of New York police’s ‘broken windows’ (zero-tolerance) thesis, which ignores the fact that crime fell in other American cities not adopting such approach, he has made a number of unhelpful comments in public.[4] On the appointment of his friend ex-Chief Superintendent Jeff Harris as his deputy on a £50,000 pa salary, he said, ‘There was no fairness in it. No openness or transparency. The role was too important for me to go through a process of interview boards with people I don’t know. To put it bluntly, I understand the business.’ On the Stephen Lawrence affair, the Surrey PCC claimed that Sir William McPherson was suffering ‘post-colonial guilt’. And our champion of the people wishes to abolish county policing and move to even larger regional forces.[5] Yet what resemblance do certain existing police forces, such as Thames Valley Police or West Mercia, bear to any meaningful community?[6]

Police policing the police hinders the fostering of greater public confidence in constables. HMIC working in tandem with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is one means of evaluating police legitimacy. Yet the IPCC is, in the eyes of some, tainted by too close a link with the police.[7] The IPCC’s current Director of Investigations, Moir Stewart (ex-Met), was criticized by the IPCC about his role as Sir Ian Blair’s staff officer during the shooting of Jean Charles de Menzes in 2005.[8]

Legitimacy rests on understanding the relationship between police and public. Public confidence in the police has not been so low since the interwar years or the 1970s, in both cases a result of misconduct in the Metropolitan Police. Malpractice was systemic, an accepted part of police culture. Three great Met Commissioners, Viscount Byng of Vimy (1928-31), Lord Trenchard (1931-35) and Sir Robert Mark (1972-77) tried and failed to instil greater public confidence in the police. Let us hope Sir Thomas Winsor, the first Chief Inspector of Her Majesty’s Constabulary without a police background to hold this post, succeeds where others have foundered.”

[1] Clive Emsley, The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present (London: Quercus, 2009), p. 295.

[2] ‘Surrey Police Election Results’, 16 November 2012

[3] ‘Gala Dinners, Jive Bands and Tom Cruise: How the Scientologists Woo the City Police’, Guardian, 22 November 2006,

[4] Bernard E. Harcourt, Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[5] ‘Policing My Way: Exclusive Interview with Surrey’s new Police and Crime Commissioner Kevin Hurley’, Surrey Comet, 14 February 2013,

[6] Emsley, The Great British Bobby, p. 295.

[7] Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn, Untouchables: Dirty Cops, Bent Justice and Racism in Scotland Yard (London: Bloomsbury, 2nd edn., 2012); Phillip Gregory, ‘Questioning the Independence of the IPCC and its Relationship with Public Confidence in the Police Complaints Procedure’, Bristol Law Journal (2012) , pp. 77-86.

[8] ‘Menzes Police Officer gets top IPCC Role’, Guardian, 30 October 2009,


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One Response to The Best Police in the World?

  1. Pingback: 1215 and All That: An Excursion into the Absurdities of the English | Londonlowlife

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