The use and abuse of police powers has always been one of Liberty’s top concerns. It was police brutality against the Hunger Marches of the 1930s that inspired our founder Ronald Kidd to create the National Council for Civil Liberties.
More recently Liberty has spoken out against measures giving officers on the ground wide and ill-defined powers without proper regulation. Many of these powers were introduced under the guise of countering terrorism, but in reality they have been used to interfere with the work of journalists, stifle peaceful protest, prevent free expression, and discriminate against people from ethnic minorities.
Liberty believes that one of the major problems with many of these policing measures is that they provide the police with little guidance and leave a lot to the discretion of individual officers. This puts our police men and women in a very difficult position, particularly when they are called upon to act in high pressure situations.
In exchange for granting the police these broad powers, the last Government wanted greater influence over operational policing. Consequently, officers on the ground were forced to work to centralised targets which often had more to do with influencing public perceptions of policing than getting the best results.
Political meddling in law enforcement can come in different forms, from very public government target-setting to secretive back office wrangling between senior members of the police and prominent politicians. Under the coalition Government, however, the independence of the police is facing its biggest challenge yet.
The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, passed by Parliament in September 2011, will abolish regional police authorities, replacing them with directly elected ‘Police and Crime Commissioners’. Our police forces will be placed firmly in the hands of elected politicians and accountability to the Rule of Law will be replaced with accountability to a partisan politician. The first elections will be held on 15th November 2012.
If policing becomes solely about winning votes, there will undoubtedly be casualties – the needs of minority groups will quickly slip down the agenda, as will those issues which are not sufficiently eye-catching. No longer free to use their experience and expertise to protect us all, the police will be under constant pressure to focus time and energy on the issues that attract the most high profile and popular support, neglecting real needs elsewhere in the community.
Liberty believes that our political representatives have a fundamental role to play in policing. It is their duty to ensure that our laws are clear and detailed, providing officers at the frontline with the guidance they need to enforce the law in a confident and even handed way. Politicians should not however be involved in operational policing.
An independent police force is a crucial ingredient of a healthy democracy. A police force in the hands of politicians is something we associate more with authoritarian states than modern democracies. Policing should be governed by the need to keep our streets safe, protect the vulnerable and uphold the law of the land. There is no room for political point scoring.