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Editorial: Our police need more radical change than this

The priority must be far fewer forces to produce a coherent national structure

It says much about the police as an institution and the quality of its leadership that even such limited reforms as were put out for consultation should have prompted the ruckus they did. In this day and age, the proposed changes can hardly be considered earth-shattering.

The most high-profile change mooted is that chief constable jobs should be open to officers from other countries. That this was not already the case came to light when Bill – “zero tolerance” – Bratton, former head of the New York police, found he was not eligible to become Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. At a time when most top jobs invite international competition, it is short-sighted to exclude foreign talent from the police, especially when a Canadian can head the Bank of England.  

Less eye-catching, but of more immediate concern to the police, are the proposals relating to training and careers. Outsiders would be allowed to join as superintendents after 15 months’ training and some recruits could be fast-tracked to inspector within three years. The police insist that all officers need three years on the beat and that policing remains the one area where experience trumps all else.

That there is some truth to these arguments does not mean that they must be accepted as the whole truth. There is hardly a sector in the developed world that does not have fast-tracking schemes, managerial traineeships and the like for qualified entrants, and they invariably require stints in lowly positions – the equivalent of beat-pounding, or square-bashing for the Army. It is natural that those who entered policing the traditional way may fear change that could affect their prospects – though their objections would be more tenable if their zeal for walking the beat were reflected in the numbers actually doing that. But the lack of a central scheme for preparing an officer corps equivalent cannot but restrict the calibre of recruits. The police are the losers here.

Together, these measures should facilitate a thoroughly healthy opening up of the police in England and Wales. The closed nature of the institution and its resistance to new people and new ideas (unless they entail expensive new hardware) are well known. But so, although rarely admitted, is the parochialism of individual forces. To describe as unprecedented the relatively modest modernisation now being  proposed only illustrates how much more can, and should, be done.

It is not just in recruitment that the police need a shake-up. There are more than 40 police authorities in England and Wales, which means more than 40 chief constables running more than 40 petty fiefdoms. This fragmentation is one reason why specialised forces – anti-terrorism, organised crime and the like – have to be set up to meet what are clearly national requirements, and why the Commissioner of the Met, while responsible for law and order in one of the world’s most complex police districts, is also de facto head of the police nationwide.

This is a ridiculous and outmoded state of affairs, which was exemplified in the brief struggle between the Home Office and the London Mayor for control of the Met. A partial solution might be a two-tier Continental-style police force, with national and local forces organised along separate tracks. But the top priority has to be a drastic reduction in the number of forces to produce a coherent national structure.

It could be argued that relations between the Home Secretary and the police are already so bad that she should avoid doing anything to make them worse. But let’s turn that argument on its head. With so little to lose, this could be the best possible time for the Home Office to force change.