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.

Police Accountability

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.

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.