Podium: The police force of the next century - Edward Crew

From a speech by the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police to the Public Management and Policy Association
IT SEEMS to me that the future has a habit of being the same as the past, only faster, and that what has happened over the years really is a good pointer to future developments. Today I am looking at policing in 2010 and, in police service terms, 11 years represents a very short time-scale, but you can be sure that there are going to be substantial changes, with pressures likely to be coming from some unlikely directions.

At the moment the irritation about policing in this country is that it does not conveniently fit into boxes. One moment a constable is helping an old lady who's lost her key to gain entry to her flat, and the next he's in pursuit of an armed robber. It is this soft/ hard feature of British policing that makes it unique. There is a failure of some outside commentators to understand the importance of the different aspects to our total function. This leads to the service being misrepresented. In a society that relies on consent for its policing, attracting support for its law-enforcement activity is achieved by assisting the public by providing otherwise unsupplied social services.

This is exemplified in the story about the police officer talking to a group of 13-year-old schoolchildren, and at the end of his talk inviting them to pen an essay about "the police". One of the boys picked up his pen and dashed something quickly on paper, while all the others continued writing. Fascinated, the teacher and the officer looked what the pupil had written. It said, "All coppers are bastards." Both adults were horrified, and the officer offered an action plan. He arranged for the boy to spend a day at the police station. He was collected from home in a marked traffic car and given a ride in a helicopter, and walked the dogs at work.

The following day, the officer returned to the school and asked what he thought was his newly converted fan to rewrite his essay, which he duly did. A few moments later the boy put down his pen and the essay was read. It said, "All coppers are cunning bastards."

In humour there is a substantial truth, and the truth here is that the soft and hard sides of the policing business are interrelated. This style of policing should not, and indeed, I believe, will not, be abandoned. The recent Crime and Disorder legislation, which puts the emphasis on partnership, reinforces the position of police officers as the gatekeeper to other services. The police role as "cunning bastards", seeking consent and assistance in the law-enforcement activity by attracting popularity in the social service role, is likely to continue.

Police services and local authorities are still feeling their way through the Crime and Disorder Act. The first crime audits have been done, and the first community safety plans published. Forcing different people from different disciplines to work together breaks down stereotypes and challenges preconceived thinking. The test, however, will not be whether folk like each other, or the size or glossiness of the Community Safety Plan. The test will be whether joint working leads to a reduction in both crime and the fear of crime - a greater problem than crime itself.

The changes that we are likely to see within the decade will, at first sight, seem radical. The truth is that they are part of a process that commenced in the middle of the last century. They revolve around control, democratic accountability, the constitutional operational independence of chief constables, and the shifting relationships between Home Secretary, Police Authority and Chief Constable. It is ironic that in the year 2000, a Police Authority of elected members from London Boroughs will be established to share responsibility for the Metropolitan Police with the Home Secretary. It was the issue of who should control the Metropolitan Police that, in the last century, delayed the establishment of the London County Council for 10 years.

There are going to be considerable changes arising from technological developments, and probably at a faster speed than hitherto. There are to be changes in police structures, as we are re-brigaded into larger units. There will be changes in police governance, as the shortfalls of the current arrangements are remedied.

The knack, however, is to keep firmly in place a style of policing that we were in danger of losing some years ago. British policing is unique. It remains the envy of professional colleagues internationally, and we give it up at our peril.

We often don't realise the value of what we have had until it goes. We must cherish our policing style to ensure that the British bobby, male and female, black and white, remains "a cunning bastard".