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Police chiefs' association accused of profiteering

The private organisation representing Britain's top police officers faced demands last night for reform – or even disbanding – over allegations that it was being run as a business with a multi-million-pound budget relying heavily on public funds.

Civil liberties campaigners and opposition politicians called for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to be "stopped in its tracks" amid growing concerns over its burgeoning powers.

ACPO, a private company, is paid millions of pounds a year by the taxpayer to, in effect, run the nation's police forces. It has been viewed as providing a vital public service in writing the rules on police operations, advising ministers, and campaigning on issues such as the proposed 90-day detention of terror suspects and the DNA database.

But a newspaper investigation has raised concerns over "profit-making" activities, including selling information from the police national computer for up to £70 a time – when ACPO pays just 60p for the details.

The organisation also markets "police approval" logos to firms selling anti-theft devices and runs a separate private firm offering training to speed-camera operators.

ACPO, set up in 1997 to replace an informal network of police chiefs who decided national policies, is headed by former Sussex Chief Constable Sir Ken Jones, who earns £138,702 a year. In the past two years its influence and public role has expanded and its annual income from "project" work for the police and the Home Office has risen to £15m, from £1.3m in 2005. But its growth has taken place without any parliamentary debate or public scrutiny, and its decisions are largely taken in secret.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the civil rights group Liberty, questioned whether ACPO's role as a company with increasing national powers was legal. "ACPO is many things," she said. "It advises government, it sets policing policy, it campaigns for increased police powers, and now we learn it is engaged in commercial activities – all with a rather shady lack of accountability."

The shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, questioned ACPO's role. "Is it an external reference group for Home Office ministers or a professional association protecting senior officers' interests?" he asked. "Is it a national policing agency? Is it a pressure group arguing for greater police powers?"