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Report: “The Police and Democracy” (04/02/2010)
by Ingrid Ots
In times of increased security threats and live media coverage of crime, people demand more actions from the police than ever before. But while police officers have more power, people become disappointed in public institutions including the police.
This meetup tries to deal with issues of police transparency and accountability and whether we sacrifice some of our liberal principles for a sense of security. A politician, a police officer, a researcher and an academic offer their views on the subject.
Keith Vaz, a Labour MP for Leicester, is convinced that what the public wants most is “visibility of actions” such as a popular demand for “bobbies on the beat”. This explains the fact that 88 per cent of all police forces budget goes on staffing.
“This government has probably given to the police more money as a whole than any other government in history.
“In real terms public spending on police has risen by 19 per cent in the last four years. There are also 4.8 per cent more officers and 15.9 per cent additional staff», says Keith.
But the MP, who examined policies and expenditure of Home Office institutions throughout his career as a government committees member, acknowledges that whether these resources were spent sufficiently is a “dilemma” for the government.
The majority of routine activities such as taking of DNA and filing of evidence are now taken by the private sector which provides a better “value for money”, says the MP, acknowledging that these processes go largely unnoticed by the wider society.
On a positive side, Keith is keen to point out that there is a “more vocal response from the public” whenever the police get it wrong.
This greater transparency is aided by the exposure to media and police embracing non-traditional ways of communicating such as sms-messaging, Twitter and Facebook, adds Stuart Donald, a chief constable of Humberside.
For Stuart, the greatest challenge to the officers is a mounting pressure to chase set targets. This leads to the need to produce results such as ASBOs and minor convictions and overzealous actions by officers.
“As police officers we can exercise discretion. But these informal ways are not recognised, they don’t get reflected in the league tables”, says the officer.
The police officer is also concerned about communication between the police and local communities admitting that, although there are layers of accountability in place, the police sometimes feel “too big to say sorry”.
And there are ongoing tensions between the police and ethnic minority communities, according to Kjartan Sveinsson, a research and policy analyst at Runnymede Trust.
He points out that the use of Section 60 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to employ stop and search practices directed to blacks and other minorities has increased.
Based on a recent statistics, black people are 18 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white citizens while the likelihood of the enforced procedure is 277 per cent more for Asians.
“Ethnic profiling undermines police effectiveness and feeds a long history of suspicion among communities. We are concerned that there is a gap between law enforcement agencies and human rights organisations and that it is growing”, says Kjartan.
But for Dr Dominic Wood, head of the law and criminal justice studies at Christ Church university, we are in danger of giving out too much of our freedom in exchange of a 24-hour protection.
“It is surprising for me that there seems to be more demand for policing, including that of the police, which shows the extent to which we’ve normalised it.
“In many ways a police officer doesn’t do anything a citizen can’t do. I think we’ve lost the ability to deal with issues informally. People feel disempowered and unauthorised to act”, says he.
Dominic reminds that since the emerging of the police in Britain in 1829, the state endorsed a concept of minimal force and limited power given to the officers with the emphasis on citizens’ self-governance.
“Such liberal policing has its problems such as failures to deal with, for example, domestic violence, leaving the officers standing back and leaving people alone.
“But it also encourages public scrutinising of the use of police powers, often indiscriminate”, says Dominic.
The academic warns of a danger of becoming an “illiberal democracy” where beaurocracy will take over and the quality of police service will be undermined by public demand to make popular but not necessarily right choices.
Agreeing with the panel that the popular can often be authoritarian, Dominic concludes:
“I am in favour of dealing with issues in more informal, more timely and less costly ways, or as Montesquieu said, as quickly and as painlessly as possible”.