In an exclusive interview with the Independent on Sunday, Sir John Smith, deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and current president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that the proposed changes would do little to cure the current 'crisis' in policing.
The findings of a Home Office team, which is examining the work done by police officers to see what services could be provided by private firms, will go to the Home Secretary next January. A separate independent review, chaired by Sir John Cassels, director of the National Commission on Education, has suggested a second-tier force which would patrol the streets without full police powers.
The Home Office says its aim is to separate out those tasks which do not need highly paid and trained police officers, such as escorting extra-wide lorries, rounding up stray dogs and inspecting chemists. But chief constables around the country have reacted angrily to the ideas.
Yesterday, Sir John expressed his disquiet. 'If public policing is about public accountability, private policing should not be on the agenda,' he said. 'We have something of a crisis in policing right now - and it's a crisis which will not be solved by hiring untrained people to patrol our streets.'
He said that jobs most likely to be hived off included those which are difficult to measure in terms of effectiveness but which greatly benefit public/police relations: 'It would be foolhardy simply to hand over patrolling to anybody prepared to take it on. The style of British policing would be fundamentally changed for the worse, and the public would suffer.'
The idea that private firms could replace police officers in providing a reassuring visiblepresence was unrealistic, he said. 'At the moment, anyone equipped with a mobile phone, a van and a dog can become the new protector of a neighbourhood. This is not acceptable.
'On top of that, there's no evidence that they have any great impact on crime in an area - they may merely displace crime to an area where people cannot afford private security. In general, criminals will simply strike when the patrol is out of sight.
'Policing is a complete and complex service. Officers patrolling a sector get to know the people who live there and vice versa. That local knowledge and co-operation is vital if the police are to be successful in dealing with crime - and all the other things we deal with. It's often through local contact with people that we get the information which solves crimes.'
He said the shift in priorities arising from the reviews could see police being held in reserveto deal only with potentially violent situations. He cited policing in Los Angeles before the beating of Rodney King and subsequent riots. Police there became obsessed with instant responses and crime statistics and were alienated from the community.
'My fear is that we may become so heavily focused on crime and things which can be measured that many aspects of policing will disappear altogether, leaving a police service which is seen as distant and even arrogant.'
Sir John questioned whether it was possible to quantify accurately the value of police work: 'Should we spend time talking to people who are distraught and contemplating suicide? What should we do about the drunk lying on a grass verge in winter? Just leave him there and hope he doesn't die overnight?
'There are many incidents where we help people because we're there, maybe when all the other agencies have closed down for the day. We're a kind of social safety net. Most of this work cannot be measured - but it is important none the less.'
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