Leading article: Home truths for the police

An alarming glimpse inside Britain's police forces was offered yesterday by the head of the Police Superintendents' Association, Ian Johnston. The fragile public confidence in the police, he said in a speech we extract on page 33, presents a greater challenge to law and order even than a major threat like terrorism, for without public confidence a solution to terrorism would never be found. Contrary to widespread perception, crime is declining. The British Crime Survey shows it is down 32 per cent, with burglary cut by 55 per cent. Yet, despite this, public confidence in the police is falling. More than 40 per cent of those who report a crime say they feel more dissatisfied with the police afterwards than they did before the incident. This is deeply worrying.

There are countless daily examples of officers acting with tact, diplomacy and courage often in difficult, dangerous and demanding circumstances. But the target-setting culture within the police service has distorted their mission so that officers hit the target but miss the point.

It is disturbing but unsurprising to find that nearly half of all recorded complaints against police were allegations of neglect, failure of duty, rudeness and incivility. The superintendents' association may blame the increased pressures on officers to deal with incidents quickly and to manage a large workload. But whatever the cause, the problem needs to be addressed. The public is also disappointed with police officers who fail to use common sense or exercise an appropriate sense of proportion and discretion. If the superintendents are right when they say this often stems from an over-rigid adherence to national guidelines and detection rules, this is a culture which needs to change from one of blame and punishment to one of learning and improvement.

Nor is it good to hear them say that police leadership training schemes bear so little relation to the reality of on-the-street policing that they have to leave their experience at the door and embark upon exercises in box-ticking political correctness. If that is true, changes are needed in both the training and in the work on the streets. A lot needs to be done to restore the bruised reputation of the police in the eyes of the public.

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