Sir Hugh Orde: Tension between politicians and police is healthy
One of the foundations of British policing is the doctrine of constabulary independence, by which Robert Peel, characterising the police as autonomous professional agents of the law, deliberately insulated policing from political control. It is this conscious design that allows the police to rely on expertise, judgment and experience in taking professional decisions on operational policing. The public interest and standard of policing are protected from compromise.
This is the case for operational independence of the police. Now let me attempt to kill off a couple of ‘straw men’.
First, we must be clear that the essential counterpoint to operational independence is accountability to the public. It is effected in different ways, through the law, through the Home Secretary at a national level and through representatives at a local level. I am convinced there should be a healthy tension for these relationships to work.
Last week I attended Cobr meetings and the Prime Minister and Home Secretary were enormously supportive of the work of the police service throughout. The Home Secretary clearly understands the complexity of the world in which we live and I think she appreciates that we cannot get it right all the time. What I witnessed in Cobr was robust oversight but with senior officers making clear operational decisions.
This was the fundamental point I was seeking to address in media interviews last week.
I was not suggesting that politicians were themselves an irrelevance and would urge people to look beyond the headlines and sound bites to the fundamental point I was trying to make. The more robust policing tactics adopted last Tuesday were not a function of political interference; they were a function of the numbers being available to allow the chief constables to change their tactics – something the Home Secretary reinforced in her speech this week. I think politicians themselves would want the public to be clear on this point as they too seek to underline the importance of police service free of political interference.
Equally, the government has an absolute right to reform accountability at a local level, which it aims to do through replacing police authorities with locally elected police and crime commissioners. Our position is that the police service should have clarity on how new arrangements are going to work, complete with effective checks and balances that sustain the insulation from political interference in operations which Peel intended.
The second straw man is the idea that, infused with a strong sense of professional independence, British policing believes it is immune to learning lessons from outside policing or abroad. Neither is true. The Chiefs I represent are some of the most open minded individuals I know. US policing in particular has strong links with forces in the UK and in recent months our conversations have focussed particularly on sharing lessons of policing against declining budgets. That is why I have suggested to the Home Secretary that we host an international policing conference where we can bring all these ideas together.
The inference I am closed to ideas from other jurisdictions is flawed on every level. Firstly, I am a friend of Bill Bratton. We both served for exactly the same time in Northern Ireland and LA. Indeed he was one of the first people I invited to speak at a conference I organised in Northern Ireland in 2008. I also met Bill with other Chiefs in Scotland Yard at the invitation of Sir John Stevens to discuss issues of mutual interest when he was Commissioner and have spent time with him in LA.
I also sit on the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the US Chiefs' organisation for larger forces in America. In fact I am the only non-US member, which is a huge honour. I recently briefed the Vice President of the United States on the current challenges we face in UK policing with fellow PERF board members.
I have been privileged to speak more recently at conferences in Australia, New Zealand and Canada where I talked on issues of leading change and terrorism.
It is also worth noting, the other direction, Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police has been in demand in America to share lessons of GMP’s success in tackling gangs. Our leadership has much to offer the Government and that is why Chiefs were slightly surprised that the service was not asked for its view before seeking advice from overseas.
It is disappointing to see a mounting attack on British policing that has stood the test of time. We have much to be proud of in our model of policing and we are determined to preserve and sustain it. But let no one think we are not open to continual challenge, change and improvement. What we need now is a mature, reasoned and evidence-based debate that fairly recognises expertise and ensures we move policing forward.
We have a police service that has always been willing to acknowledge and learn from mistakes, a largely unarmed service based on principals of minimum force, minimum interference with citizens rights, yet when necessary prepared to stamp its authority on those who choose to break the law. A service that has reduced crime year on year by working with the communities it serves. It is reassuring to see that the public, who we ultimately serve to protect, understands the complexity of our world as evidenced by recent surveys. We police with consent, we must never forget that.
Sir Hugh Orde is President of the Association of Chief Police Officers.