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An emerging British model

Print edition : Oct 07, 2005

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Peter Neyroud, who heads the Thames Valley Police.-PHOTOGRAPH: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Peter Neyroud, who heads the Thames Valley Police.-PHOTOGRAPH: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The illustrious careers of officers like Peter Neyroud present interesting insights into the way policing works in the United Kingdom.

WHEN Sir Robert Peel, the then Home Secretary who went on to become the British Prime Minister, created the London `Bobby' through the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, he was sowing the seeds of a system that was to be the model for builders of police forces in several countries. Peel's hypothesis was that if you succeeded in bringing in the best of youth into law enforcement, the community had little to worry about in terms of order and crime. The Bobby (named after `Bob', the Home Secretary) was soon to become a household name for dignity, alacrity and personal integrity. This was, however, the creation of a time when England was a homogeneous society, with little or no immigration from the rest of the world.

Things were to change substantially in the latter part of the 20th century, when burgeoning opportunities attracted people from a variety of cultures and different parts of the globe. Aided by a liberal and lax immigration policy, the country was soon to be a melting pot of religions and faiths that made policing a complex task. The expanded entity of the United Kingdom, which brought England, Wales and Scotland together, is now a political arrangement that calls for high skills and sagacity, not only in general administration but policing as well. It is a test for the U.K. Police how well it will keep different sections of the community - the British white and black, South Asians, Africans and a host of others - separate, yet together, so that they can retain their identities while, at the same time, understand one another without getting into an adversarial relationship. This is a gargantuan task that has weighed down the U.K. Police, especially in London, during the past few decades. The problem has been exacerbated by the recent happenings, which have virtually polarised society between one small group that relies on terrorism as a means to bring about change and the much larger one, which places a premium on order and tolerance.

The policing system conceived more than 175 years ago by Peel has generally coped with the pressures, especially of the kind seen immediately after the July explosions this year. There are, however, a few signs of wear and tear that cause some anxiety to the Home Office, which administers the police. This department is convinced that certain fundamental reforms in the style of policing are warranted if society is to be held together. The assessment specifically, is that, while tough measures against terrorism are required, the emphasis should be on taking care of the sensitivities of individual groups within the community. Tony Blair has a definite agenda to take this strategy forward, and he is determined to push it through in Parliament and other forums. What is remarkable is the open debate that governs policing matters in the country, and a willingness to adapt to technology.

My critical appraisal of the U.K. Police is that, underneath all current exercises aimed at raising standards, there is a popular faith in the quality of current police leadership which will help to support the much needed reforms; that is, once a consensus emerges about what such reforms should be. The focus of attention is rightly the London Metropolitan Police (the Met), which is the largest of the 43 forces in England and Wales. (Scotland has its own eight forces and Northern Ireland instituted a separate force in 2001.) With a strength of 31,000 officers and a large complement of civilian staff (13,000) to support them, the Met sets the standards for other forces to emulate. It has had some outstanding leaders such as Sir Robert Mark, who wrote the famous Policing: a Perplexed Society; Sir Paul Condon, who went on to be the Anti-Corruption Commissioner of the International Cricket Conference; and Sir John Stevens, whose autobiography `Not for the faint-hearted: My Life fighting crime' was released recently. The current Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, is no less distinguished. His handling of the recent terrorist attacks has been widely commended, notwithstanding the controversy over the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes by the police, after he was wrongly mistaken for a terrorist. There are several equally able chiefs (called Chief Constables) in the other forces.

I HAVE been fortunate to get to know Peter Neyroud, who heads the Thames Valley Police (headquartered in Kidlington, outside Oxford), which is the fifth largest force in the country. It is interesting how we became friends. In 1991, Peter came to India on a Rotary-sponsored trip. He sought me out because he had read one of my books on the Indian Police that he came across at Bramshill, Britain's primary police training institution. Ever since we met on that occasion in Chennai, we have forged a valuable professional bond. It has helped us to understand the critical issues in policing in our respective countries. Possibly, I have learnt more from him than he has from me.

Peter is an unusually gifted police officer. Educated at the Winchester College, a leading private school, he went on to pick up his B.A. (Honours) degree in Modern History from Oriel College, Oxford University. He also has a Diploma in Criminology from Wolfson College, Cambridge. It is therefore a dream combination of Oxford and Cambridge education that lends him the charm and poise that I admire in him most. It is my privilege to chat with him every time I visit the U.K. and exchange ideas on contentious issues that bedevil the police worldwide. He is a `thinking policeman', a term that conveys the misleading impression that police officers hardly think before they act. There is also the other feeling that if a policeman boasts of a string of university degrees and other distinctions, he is an academic and a theoretician who is unfit to handle live situations in the field. Peter has proven this wrong. He meshes theoretical knowledge with an operational acumen that would be the envy of any police officer.

Armed with a degree from Oxford, in the elitist subject of Modern History, one would hardly expect a bright youth to opt for a career in the police force, especially in the U.K. where, unlike in India, one has to start from the lowest rung of Constable. Peter attributes his decision to the influence of a classmate at Oxford who was a Thames Valley Inspector. His four-day vacation course with the force convinced him that his only place was in the police. He has never looked back since joining the Hampshire Police as a Constable, way back in 1980. And rightly so, because his progress within the police has been phenomenal. He rose to the position of Sergeant (equivalent to our Sub-Inspector) in 1986 and to Inspector in 1988. He went on to become a Superintendent in 1993, just 13 years after he was enlisted, a record that can hardly be beaten. In 1998, he moved to the West Mercia Constabulary, to be first, an Assistant Chief Constable, and later a Deputy.

When one shifts from one force to another, one is tested intensively and must be found fit by the Local Police Authority before induction. Such appointments are made on the basis of a nationwide advertisement and selection process, based purely on merit and past record. This is how Peter became Chief Constable in the Thames Valley Police in 2002, a force of 4,140 policemen that is responsible for servicing a population of 2.2 million spread over 2,200 square miles. It also manages traffic on a 196-mile motorway, the longest stretch in England. The jurisdiction of this force borders that of the Met and covers Windsor Castle, to which the Queen and other VIPs come several times a year, throwing the burden of protection of dignitaries on Peter and his men. Incidentally, the British Prime Minister's hallowed country residence in Chequers is also the responsibility of the Thames Valley Police.

Peter knows about the Indian Police Service (IPS), and its strengths and weaknesses. He feels that beginning at the foot of the ladder, as U.K policemen do, lends greater credibility to a leader vis-a-vis the other ranks. In fact, a major criticism against IPS officers is that they are hardly knowledgeable about field difficulties, because they start at the middle-level, and their exposure to the grassroots of policing is only for a brief spell during training in the Districts. Peter enjoys patrolling as a constable, even now, as the head of the force. How many would do this in India is a matter for debate.

While at Hampshire, Peter contributed greatly to the installation of new systems. He was also a successful detective, and he managed to impact national crime policy as the Staff Officer to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Leading the Thames Valley Police now has been a great challenge. With a modest record until a few years ago, the force has come a long way under Peter's dedicated leadership. He is quite sensitive to the fact that target-oriented policing is slowly giving way to "a more engaged neighbourhood style of policing." He feels that, while the police in the country have been good at major crime detection and deploying technology for this, they have been less good at service. His focus is therefore on service delivery in the context of local policing. This approach is reflected in the recent decision of the Thames Valley Police to create 16 local policing areas within the five Basic Command Units that exist now. Each of the new areas will have a senior police officer in charge and a neighbourhood team dealing with local problems such as anti-social behaviour.

Peter takes pride in calling himself a `reformist'. When pressed hard on what reforms he actually visualised, he said: "I would like to see a new and stronger approach to professionalism, a national policing system that is more capable of coping with the layers of challenges at local, regional and national levels, and a much more effective approach to developing evidence-based practice."

As he is highly articulate, Peter has been closely involved in writing a blueprint for the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA) that is in the works. The Labour government is committed to this project, but it is not clear whether it will be created through an Act of Parliament or a mere Executive Order. Either way, the NPIA is already a reality. It will be a trailblazer and take on tasks that are now distributed among a variety of agencies, an arrangement that has not led to cohesion. Peter expects this new body to change the present "culture of independence" among police forces that has led to a lack of coordination as well as an inadequate pooling of resources. The NPIA would bring in greater collaboration between government and local forces and between the local forces as well. The NPIA experiment is worth watching by those in India who are anxious that the Indian Police should constantly upgrade themselves in terms of structure, style, delivery quality and speed.

At 46, Peter is one of the youngest police chiefs in the country. His enormous energy and capacity for hard work mark him out for higher responsibilities. After his stint with Thames Valley, and possibly a brief innings at the proposed NPIA, it will not be a surprise if he is invited to head the Met. This will be the crowning glory of an illustrious career, allowing him the opportunity to transform policing in a city that hogs international attention all the time. In the context of what happened in July, the Met has its work cut out for it, and will pose many challenges to Peter if and when he takes over. He will certainly be equal to such challenges.

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