Ian Johnston: Targets have wrecked public confidence in policing

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The Independent Online

The greatest challenge facing policing today is the issue of public confidence. Let's not kid ourselves: some of the media criticism of the service is warranted. Stories that relate to officers' lack of use of discretion and strict adherence to processes have been widely reported.

We should not be too defensive. We do still get it "right" more often than not. Our officers investigate complex enquiries, and there are daily examples of police officers acting with tact, diplomacy and courage often in difficult, dangerous and demanding circumstances. However, it is on day-to-day low level encounters that we are judged.

There are still too many occasions when we disappoint. We should all celebrate our successes; but we should publicly acknowledge that on too many occasions the public still cannot contact us or visit police stations. Too often we fail to respond and explain why. Too often we fail to keep victims and callers informed about progress in their crime or incident. Too often our staff are seen to be untidy and don't wear their uniforms with pride. Too often we fail to use common sense, a sense of proportion and discretion.

The media do tend to move in a direction that exaggerates concerns about crime. Alarming stories about rising crime will always make good news. Steady or falling trends are no news at all. If the media consistently tell people crime is increasing then it should not come as a shock if the population at large think that the level of crime is rising.

But it is not all the media's fault. Over 40 per cent of those who have contact with the police have less confidence after their experience than they had before the contact. This is not a statistic that is reflected elsewhere in the public sector.

We all know that the overwhelming majority of police officers work extremely hard, on occasions putting their lives at risk to serve the public. But the service needs to urgently address the gap between the public's perception of crime and the reality of crime. The British Crime Survey shows that crime is down 32 per cent. Burglary offences are down 55 per cent and vehicle crime is down by 52 per cent and yet public confidence is decreasing.

Officers who are perceived in this way are sometimes less willing to use their judgement. Genuine mistakes made by officers and the good intentions of managers have resulted in more and more "just in case" measures, policies and procedures – and, heaven forbid, more doctrine. Many frontline officers now adopt an approach of "if I don't make decisions I won't get it wrong". It is time that we conceded that adherence to rigid processes has resulted on occasions in officers hitting the target, but missing the point.

Ian Johnston is head of the Police Superintendents' Association. This is an extract from a speech to their annual conference yesterday