Off the beat: Rising complaints are another black mark for the police


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The Independent Online

The days when the beat bobby automatically enjoyed respect and authority now seem as distant as when Dixon of Dock Green imparted his homespun wisdom on black-and-white television.

That is explained partly by the decline of deference since the 1960s and partly by a steady stream of damaging revelations in recent years about police conduct. They include the shameful handling of the Stephen Lawrence investigation; the disclosure that undercover officers spied on the murdered teenager’s family; the alleged cover-up of police failures at Hillsborough; and the targeting of ethnic minorities for stop-and-searches.

Public trust in the police has fallen steadily during the past 10 years, although it remains far higher than for many groups, including politicians and journalists. Surveys also suggest around two-thirds of people trust their local police officer to tell the truth (although the figure is lower for senior ranks).

Figures from the Independent Police Complaints Commission yesterday underlined the trend of falling confidence, revealing a 15 per cent increase in complaints about the police last year. The number almost doubled in two forces, Northumbria and City of London. Equally worrying, the statistics also indicated that forces are upholding fewer complaints than they should, suggesting that officers are too often getting it wrong not once, but twice.

These failures are crucial for the long-term reputation of the police. It will be hard for it to regain the confidence of more than 34,000 people who were moved to complain last year – or the confidence of their family and close friends. Reforms to the complaints system – both locally and in the teeth given to the police watchdog – are essential. But even more important is a relentless focus on driving up standards, underpinned by the constant reminder that officers belong to a police service as well as a police force.