Politicising the police

Published : Dec 31, 2010 00:00 IST

BRITISH POLICE OUTSIDE Parliament as students protest against government education cuts, in London on November 30. The Conservatives believe that the accountability of the police to the community has eroded.-CARL COURT/AFP

BRITISH POLICE OUTSIDE Parliament as students protest against government education cuts, in London on November 30. The Conservatives believe that the accountability of the police to the community has eroded.-CARL COURT/AFP

The David Cameron government's efforts to push through the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill in the British Parliament stir a controversy.

The whole basis of policing is the independence of the office of constable. Whether it is the PC on the beat or the chief constable, no politician can tell him to use his powers in a particular way. That historical legacy, a covenant with the public that those awesome powers will be used independently of politics, is uniquely British and must be preserved.

Lord Condon, former Metropolitan Commissioner

A MAJOR controversy is brewing in the United Kingdom over the coalition government's determination to push through a revolutionary proposal that would place each of the 43 police forces in England and Wales (barring the London Metropolitan Police) under an elected Commissioner to whom the Chief Constable (an equivalent of Director General of Police at the State level) would report. The Commissioner would replace the current Local Police Authority (LPA) comprising members of the Local Council and prominent members of the public, and which lays policy guidelines for each force, taking care, however, to ensure that the Chief Constable's operational autonomy was in no way eroded. The Conservatives fought the last general election on the plank of drastic reform to make the police more democratic and accountable to the people. And the David Cameron government has lost no time in placing the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill in Parliament for early approval.

Public debate has been acrimonious ever since the Conservatives incorporated the move last year in their election manifesto. Most importantly, the police leadership and ranks reacted sharply to the intended change to the police hierarchy. They look upon it as a deliberate attempt to inject politics into policing. On their part, the Conservatives assailed the critics by saying that the police were cribbing only because they were apprehensive of losing their freedom from any political or social oversight. Many politically unattached opinion leaders, however, viewed this polemics as a Tory-Labour proxy war; the Tories have always held the view that the British Police was inclined to support the Labour as against them, albeit in a subtle manner.

This development is unfortunate if one reckons the glorious history of the police in the country in steering clear of politics. Many legal pundits have in the past gone on record hailing the apolitical nature of policing in the country and the strength of the system to ward off any attempts to tinker with the absolute operational autonomy that the police enjoyed.

The correct perspective of the executive-police relationship was perhaps given in the most clinical of language by the iconic Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls (the second most senior judge in England Wales after the Lord Chief Justice and who presides over the Civil Division of the Court of Appeals), in the famous 1968 case ( R vs Metropolitan Police Commissioner), when he ruled: [L]ike every constable in the land, the Commissioner should be, and is, independent of the executive. He is not subject to the orders of the Secretary of State, save that under the Police Act, 1964, the Secretary of State can call on him to give a report, or to retire in the interests of efficiency. No Minister of the Crown can tell him that he must, or must not, keep observation on this place or that; or that he must, or must not, prosecute this man or that one. The responsibility for law enforcement lies on him. He is answerable to the law and to the law alone.

Now famously known as the Blackburn ruling (named after a London legal practitioner and social activist who had sought a mandamus against the London Police Commissioner), it is often quoted by scholars the world over in support of their strong belief that the police will perform best if they are given total autonomy from executive interference. It is an entirely different story that Indian bosses think otherwise, and gloat over their immense capacity to browbeat the police into doing the most despicable of things just to serve the interests of a party in power.

Many discerning observers of the U.K. police scene are convinced that the current Tory proposal, endorsed and backed by the Liberal Democrats, is not all that innocent. The move for a far-reaching legislation defining the role of a Commissioner who will oversee police work in each force will have to be viewed against the backdrop of the unseemly removal of Sir Ian Blair (now a member of the House of Lords) last year from the post of Metropolitan Commissioner (the head of Scotland Yard), much before he had finished his term. This happened following the defeat of London's Labour Mayor David Livingstone at the hands of Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party. The latter had for long looked upon Blair (no relation of Tony Blair) as a staunch Labourite, and were waiting for an opportunity to get rid of him.

Boris Johnson lost no time after assuming office in telling Blair that he (Blair) did not enjoy his confidence. The Mayor was using his clout as the Chairman of the Metropolitan Police's Local Police Authority. (Earlier this year, Johnson gave way to his deputy, Kit Malthouse, to take over as the Chairman.) Blair could have ignored him because the Metropolitan Commissioner is appointed by the Home Secretary, and the LPA had only a recommendatory role. Blair nevertheless put in his papers in order to avoid further acrimony that could have affected the quality of policing in the city. This unsavoury episode by itself would show that policing in the U.K. is not all that devoid of politics as we in India would have imagined. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill only confirms this assessment.

What are the prominent features of the reform process set in motion by the David Cameron government? In the first elections to be held in May 2012, people in each area will elect a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for their police force. The Commissioner will hold office for four years, and is eligible for one more term. Serving police officers are barred from contesting and a retired officer will have to wait for four years after laying down office to be eligible to stand.

The Commissioner is permitted to appoint his own advisers and panels that will assist him in overseeing the Chief Constable and his staff. The panels, meant as a checks-and-balances mechanism to monitor the performance of the Commissioner, will comprise District Council members. In his primary role, the Commissioner will be required to interact with those in the local community for the purpose of identifying the area's policing needs and set priorities. Apart from appointing or removing the Chief Constable, the Commissioner will have the authority to set the force's budget.

The Conservatives' rationale for pushing through with the sweeping reforms is that the police in the U.K. are far removed from the community and their accountability to the community has greatly eroded. This misgiving is qualitative and relates to a general perception. It can hardly be quantified except through crime statistics, which are at best dubious.

Crime in London and elsewhere in the country is no doubt a matter of grave concern. Juvenile crime is indeed serious if one goes by the violence of youths who brandish a knife at the drop of a hat. Whether the reform on the anvil will change all this is highly debatable. Most of the Chief Constables detest the prospect of reporting to a Commissioner who could well be a politician or at least one with a heavy political slant. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which represents the higher echelons, has pulled no punches. Hugely funded by the government and one which advises government on policing matters, it has made its position crystal clear. This has greatly annoyed the Conservatives who regard the ACPO as dominated by pro-Labour officers.

All these trends do not exactly enhance the image of the British Police as a homogeneous body that can boast of professional excellence. There are quite a few former police chiefs now in the House of Lords including Ian Blair who was inducted recently as a Cross Bencher (something similar to a nominated member in India). They may be expected to add spice to the debate on the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill when it reaches the House of Lords. Before that, let us wait for what happens in the Commons where the Labour should definitely put up a big fight.

Indian situation

What does all this mean to the Indian police? There is absolute unanimity across the political spectrum that the police do not deserve any operational or administrative autonomy. Everything that State governments do smacks of distrust, and there is an unconcealed desire to subjugate the police to executive caprice.

The Supreme Court is fighting this megalomania to the extent possible. States are either dodging or diluting (read sabotaging) the reforms directed by the court. It is for the whole community to stand up and counter this deliberate attempt to make the police a handmaiden of the political executive, if it is not already one.

But then how does one make the common man understand that a professional and non-political police is the best guarantee against crime and disorder? The print and visual media can play a major role.

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