The Independent Police Commission’s conclusions do not make for comfortable reading. The assessment of British law enforcement’s shortcomings is unflinching, the proposed remedies uncompromising. Given the litany of scandals with which the police have been battered in recent years, however – and the dent in public confidence that has resulted – so thoroughgoing an investigation could hardly be more needed.
The inquiry, led by former Met Commissioner Lord Stevens, is the most detailed appraisal of Britain’s police since the early 1960s; and it paints a bleak picture of a public service struggling to cope with the modern world. Against a background of profound social change – including ever-faster migration, ever-rising inequality, and the disruption of social media – forces must tackle increasingly complex challenges such as cybercrime and trafficking. And all this while budgets are slashed by a fifth and a less deferential public becomes only more demanding.
Lord Stevens’s commission has much to say in response. Among some 37 recommendations, touching everything from regulatory oversight to IT procurement, the commission has neither crimped its ambitions nor pulled its punches. The traditional 43-force structure is outdated and should be scrapped. The Police and Crime Commissioners elected last year to replace local Police Authorities are “an experiment that is failing” and should be abandoned in favour of closer ties between forces and councils. Neighbourhood policing, under threat from budget cuts, must be protected.
All are suggestions that merit attention. The priority, though, must be the proposed overhaul of the profession. Lord Stevens recommends that officers be “chartered” by the College of Policing, which would also maintain a register of members, hear complaints in public, and ensure that anyone found guilty of serious misconduct be struck off. The system would be given extra muscle by a new Independent Police Standards Commission, to replace the discredited Independent Police Complaints Commission and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.
Radical, indeed. But there is no alternative if public trust in police integrity is to be restored. The list of alleged transgressions is a long one, from the Hillsborough cover-up to the accusation of smears against the family of Stephen Lawrence, from the revelations of information sold to newspapers to the still-unresolved Plebgate affair (to name but a few). Taken together, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that police culture has become more concerned with protecting its own than with protecting the public. Until this situation is remedied, the extraordinary bravery and commitment of individual officers is dishonoured by the organisation in which they work, and Britain’s reputation for the best police in the world is in question.
The Home Secretary is not obliged to listen to Lord Stevens; his report was, after all, commissioned by her opposite number on the Labour benches. Nonetheless, she should. True, the Coalition has already instituted the biggest shake-up of policing for decades. But that is no reason not to press on. In fact, with no let-up in the scandals besetting the police, it is imperative to do so. And Lord Stevens has provided a welcome blueprint from which to begin.