Andreas Whittam-Smith: Questions must be asked of our police

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Of course there should be an independent review of policing. Almost every week some disquieting aspect of police operations is revealed. Recent disclosures have varied from the Metropolitan Police's cosy relationship with News International to the Northumbria Police's decision to hand untried, untested and unapproved Tasers to officers hunting down a gunman.

To take another example, yesterday Ann Widdecombe, the former Home Office minister, wrote the sort of sarcastic piece that the police service could do without, describing how the Lancashire constabulary interviewed a Christian couple for an hour and a quarter "when they had the temerity to ask the council if they could distribute pro-marriage leaflets in register offices". We also learnt earlier this week that when five policemen turned up to recover stolen goods from a Travellers' camp, they cited health and safety concerns as a reason for not entering the premises. So the religious couple gets it in the neck while the Travellers suspected of theft are left undisturbed. Or, at least, that is what it looks like.

The difficulty is to know what to make of these worrying cases. Do they point to systemic failures within England and Wales's 43 police forces, or are they the sort of lapses that would be expected from any organisation that employs 140,000 officers? That is the question that comes to mind as one disobliging story of police failings follows another.

So Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, has done a good deed in setting up an independent review of policing. It is one of the best things to come out of the Labour Party conference. In fact the actual Home Secretary, Theresa May, should have done this as soon as the Coalition Government came into office. But perhaps Ms May felt that combining substantial cuts in police numbers with an inquiry would have been altogether too much. She would have been asked to postpone her economies until the inquiry was finished.

Can a non-Government review be effective? I don't see why not. It has a good chair in Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Kathleen O'Toole, a former Boston police commissioner, and Tim Brain, the former Gloucestershire chief constable, will join the review team. They are both impressive choices. Ms O'Toole also served as a member of the Patten Commission, which laid the foundations for the reform of policing in Northern Ireland. Mr. Brain joined the police under the graduate entry "fast-track" scheme. As Chief Constable he carried through a programme of significant strategic change.

To build up a Big Picture of police competence, or lack of it, I have occasionally turned to the reports of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. What usually emerges when some unfortunate outcome is examined is that failures by just one or two police officers had serious consequences.

Take the case of a 15-year-old girl found with fatal injuries to her neck and throat in a lift at flats in London in 2008. The girl's mother made a formal complaint that the Metropolitan Police Service had failed to act when told that the man who was subsequently convicted of her murder was assaulting her daughter, harassing her and threatening to kill her. The IPCC concluded that the relevant police officer was poor at recording accurately what she was told and what she did with the information. She failed to seize potential evidence, failed to record the name and contact details of the victim's cousin, and through confusion and misunderstanding failed to appreciate the nature of the threat that the family were telling her about. She also failed to inform a senior officer that there was an allegation of a threat to kill.

It is, unfortunately, in the nature of these reports that while they meticulously describe what happened and identify shortcoming, they do not provide any evidence as to whether the failings they have found were common to the particular section concerned, or the whole police station or to the force itself. That is what we need to know.

The reactions to Ms Cooper's announcement were good, though this being politics, one must wonder if they were pre-baked. At all events, Paul McKeever, Chairman of the Police Federation, said that an independent review of the police service would show that "many of our current structures and practices are out of date and there is room for improvement". That in itself is a promising start.

This is my checklist for the review. I want to know whether the number of people killed by the police themselves using firearms is at an irreducible minimum or is above that level. There were 28 examples in the first decade of this century. The most recent case is that of Mark Duggan, who was shot dead by the Metropolitan Police on 4 August. This was the trigger for riots across London. Four officers are being investigated.

I should also like to understand why there are such a high number of deaths in police custody. Between 1998/99 and 2008/09 there were a total of 333 such fatalities. The ages of the deceased ranged from 14 to 77 with the average age being 39-years-old. Sixty-eight per cent were arrested in a public place, and the most common reasons for arrest were being drunk and incapable/disorderly, public order offences, driving offences and drug offences. The most common causes of death were natural causes, overdoses, suicide and injuries received prior to detention. Most of the deceased were pronounced dead in hospital. For 16 people (5 per cent), cause of death was classed as restraint-related, being either a primary or secondary factor.

Then there is the question of handling street protests. To what extent are containment tactics, such as the so-called kettling, justifiable? What should be the guidelines for the proportionate use of force? Is it not reasonable that police officers attending street protest movements should always be identifiable by their badges? And what constitutes useful communication between the police on the one hand, and the public and protesters on the other?

An authoritative report with persuasive recommendation would be a public good. It would also rebound to the credit of the Labour Opposition. It would be a sign of fitness to govern.