The answers lie in a police culture, a personality that police officers adopt when they go to work. The main elements, according to Robert Reiner, professor of criminology at the London School of Economics, are a sense of mission, a desire for action, a cynical view of the criminal justice system (the police think it's too hard to get convictions) and a pessimistic outlook based on the belief that villains never change and mostly get away with it. There are other less important aspects of the culture: the police tend to be conservative, macho, racially prejudiced and suspicious of outsiders. They also have a sense of isolation from the wider community and strong solidarity with each other.
People are not, on the whole, like this before they join. The job creates the personality. It does so quickly and the evidence suggests that commitment to the police culture is most powerful when officers have served 7-10 years. 'We are the professionals, we know best,' is the prevailing attitude.
Last week's report of the inquiry into policing, commissioned by the Home Office and chaired by Sir Patrick Sheehy, proposes ways of assaulting and submerging the police culture. It wants to get them to toe the line by hitting their pockets, to make them, as the management jargon of 30 years ago would have put it, 'jump for the jelly beans'. Sheehy believes that this is the way to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
He is wrong. He and his colleagues have underestimated the power of the police culture and show that they understand little about practical policing. Take, for example, the proposal that officers should be put on short-term contracts. The aim, presumably, is to eliminate those who show the 'wrong value system' and those who perform badly. The purpose of abolishing annual pay increments is similar. But how are these judgments to be made? What are the right 'performance indicators' for the police?
As a young probationary constable, I was obliged each quarter, as were all my contemporaries, to indicate to my supervisors the volume of 'work' I had produced. One measure was the number of stops made under what were then the 'sus' laws. If the numbers seemed insufficient what did we do? It was not necessary to go out and harass the public. We got names and addresses from the telephone directory. (This may, at least partially, explain why there were many more stops than arrests - a disparity that was used to help get the laws removed from the statute book.) Quantification of activity, whether of arrests or convictions, is problematic. Does volume count? How many drunks equal an armed robber?
In any case, a large proportion of police activity is nothing to do with crime. In 25 years of policing I helped people who had locked themselves out of cars and houses. I searched for and found missing children and geriatrics; I administered first-aid; I tried (though failed) to rescue people from burning buildings. I even once served as an off-street witness at a Register Office wedding.
So what are the best ways of managing the police and deciding which ones deserve more pay, which deserve promotion and which deserve the sack?
First, senior management should be opened to people who are not career police officers, particularly from industry and commerce. Men and women from outside the force, perhaps with law and management qualifications, would bring a link with the public and a more critical eye, provided they had first had intensive training and education in policing, as they do in Sweden. A scheme of this sort was attempted more than 40 years ago but it fell into disrepute because of inadequate selection procedures. It is time we tried again.
Second, the lower supervisory ranks should be given more power to administer discipline. Only if unacceptable behaviour is nipped in the bud will the worst parts of the police culture be eliminated. And the added responsibility would go a long way towards moving inspectors and sergeants from being 'one of the boys' to being proper managers of police officers and police work.
Third, the police must find better ways of assessing performance and ability and thus suitability for promotion. Quantitative measures are inadequate and assessments made only by seniors are open to bias and nepotism. It is not true that, at present, promotion is only attained through length of service. Nor is it true that promotion is based on the number of arrests an officer makes. For many years senior ranks have been selected on their performance in assessment centres, examining professional knowledge, psychological suitability and management skills, in addition to their competence. These selection techniques should be developed. But a more radical solution, common in many US police departments, is to use anonymous assessments made by peers and subordinates.
The Sheehy report has some positive elements, particularly the proposal to abolish overtime pay. This will assist attempts already being made to professionalise the police; other parts of the report will not. The police may no longer be able to claim they are a special case. But theirs is not just another job. It cannot be treated as if it were part of an assembly line.
The writer, a former policeman, is lecturer in police studies at the universities of Exeter and Portsmouth.
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