Let's put the police back where they belong: at the heart of the community

The launch by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, of a £7m campaign to recruit thousands more police officers can be seen as merely a bid to garner some headlines in August. When Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, pointed out that Mr Straw had failed to deliver on earlier promises, it was the proverbial fair cop. There are 124,000 serving police officers in England and Wales - down from 127,000 in 1997, despite the extra money that has already been made available. Recruitment fell by 16 per cent last year.

The launch by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, of a £7m campaign to recruit thousands more police officers can be seen as merely a bid to garner some headlines in August. When Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, pointed out that Mr Straw had failed to deliver on earlier promises, it was the proverbial fair cop. There are 124,000 serving police officers in England and Wales - down from 127,000 in 1997, despite the extra money that has already been made available. Recruitment fell by 16 per cent last year.

The "Could You?" campaign addresses the key problem of poor motivation and low morale. The Macpherson report, which contained a stinging attack on institutionalised racism in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder, is blamed in some quarters for worsening morale. But that is to look at things through the wrong end of the telescope. The message of the Macpherson report may have been painful to swallow; but the pain was a necessary part of the treatment. In the wake of the report's publication, much has changed and is continuing to change - the Met's new Policing Diversity handbook, which addresses the sensitive questions of cultural differences, is just the latest example.

The new recruitment campaign may not be perfect. The first glimpse of the television advertisements suggests that they are less than exciting, and those who have been chosen to front them are not necessarily ideal. Simon Weston, a Falklands veteran, is hardly a household name for anyone under 30. And, when selecting a footballer, could they not find anyone more contemporary than John Barnes?

None the less, the campaign's heart is in the right place. Officers will remain in the force only if they feel that it enjoys respect; equally, it will enjoy respect only if it is felt to be representative of society as a whole. During the Thatcher era, heavy-handed tactics against striking miners and at Wapping contributed to a perception that the police were politically one-sided. The dismal handling of the Stephen Lawrence affair was just the most obvious example of a set of attitudes that caused many blacks and Asians to feel as much warmth for the police as a Derry Catholic might have felt for the old RUC.

The new campaign rightly puts the police officer back where he or she belongs - at the heart of the community. Money can play a role; London weighting has already been increased, reflecting the fact that recruiting has proved particularly difficult in London and the South-east. The "Could You?" campaign is, of course, only the beginning. If police forces cannot hold on to the recruits it brings in, then all those millions of pounds will have been a waste of money. But this is the first serious attempt to turn the tide. The campaign strikes an important symbolic note, too: money will be withheld from police forces if they fail to make progress on recruiting from ethnic minorities - a powerful mixture of carrot and financial stick.

Given what has happened in the past three years, Ms Widdecombe is entitled to her scepticism. If the campaign works, however, the force, staffed by officers who are well equipped to do this enormously demanding job, will be more cohesive and better able to serve the entire community than it has been in recent years. In those circumstances, both the police and the rest of society will be the winners. It is a worthwhile prize to aim for.

Comments