Helping the community to retake its own streets

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The Independent Online
THE WORDS public and service have infused more than a decade of debate about policing and yet they have been all but effaced from the proposed reorganisation of the police. As yesterday's demonstration by police officers showed, if the Sheehy report has achieved anything it has translated the crisis in policing into a traditional trade union dispute about pay and conditions.

Against unprecedented complaint about policing and public safety, the police have been inspired to demonstrate not by their inability to provide a service, but by what they see as a threat to their own conditions of service, especially the prospect of having to stay on until the age of 60. This challenge of professional reform has brought the police to a political mutiny the like of which we have not seen since the police strikes of 1919.

In fact, frustration and fatalism have already produced something akin to an unofficial strike. This mutiny by inertia should be unthinkable if the culture were more familiar with the idea of service than force.

For progressive police managers, the Sheehy report's proposed reform of the ranks and plans for performance pay and slimmer middle management may support their struggle to professionalise police culture. But these indicators will not solve the problem of a disappointed public, because the public will not be able to participate in any decisions about how they are produced. They will do nothing to bring the providers of the police service and its purchasers closer together.

A superintendent in the South East warned: 'What is not happening is a debate about the nature of policing.' She believed the problem is 'how to move a paramilitary organisation into a community partnership'.

A chief superintendent in the North wondering about the organisation's 'ability to reinvent itself': 'We tell people to use their initiative, and support the community. But if they make a mistake we kick them all over the floor. We can't ask them to be dynamic, innovative and tolerant in the world outside and then treat them like two-year-olds inside,' he said.

'What do two-year-olds do when they can't have their own way? They have tantrums.' What the public needed, he said, was officers capable of working with 'authority, autonomy and accountability'.

These terms echo an Eighties debate, now extinguished, about accountability and community policing. They were the strategic response to a crisis that was both professional and political. The vaunted discipline of detection was in disgrace, its decline compounded by the erosion of co-operation between the public and the police upon which 90 per cent of detection depends.

Now, in the Nineties, the vocabulary of modernisation is managerialism, not service. And law and order, having been the cause of the right, has been adopted by the left as well. Having historically averted their attention from the unseemly apparatus of the strong state, radical reformers have been galvanised by the discovery of public and personal safety as a political problem. They perceived a real threat to communities that were raided by the police because of crime and by criminals because of their vulnerability - and were protected by neither.

Paradoxically, part of the problem can be traced to the police response to Lord Scarman's report into the 1981 Brixton riots, which called for a new dialogue between the community and the police. Scarman insisted that police operations should always be subject to consultation and that constabularies should always seek the cooperation of the community they served. If it was law enforcement that caused a breakdown of public order, then another way had to be found to secure the community's consent.

Police officers across Britain read that as a prescription not for imaginative action, but for no action. And many chief constables interpreted the call for consultation as the theft of their autonomy and authority. Like a white settler fearful of restless natives, Kenneth Newman, then Metropolitan Commissioner, identified several 'symbolic locations' characterised by 'cosmopolitan' communities harbouring criminals. Provocative, and even obssessive, policing produced combustion.

Merseyside was the paradigm. But the 'symbolic locations' wanted more than force, they wanted service from their police. They found a friend in the police authority, chaired by the magisterial Margaret Simey, which not only challenged the chief constable's policing of public order, but offered itself as part of the solution to public safety, and crime and investigation.

The chief constable was a man at odds with the community. As diplomatic relations between public and police broke down, so detection declined - the police had alienated their most important investigative resource, the public.

It was in Merseyside that a police authority first sought to audit the efficiency of the police, and it was there that the police authority pushed the frontiers of accountability to their democratic limits. But this most audacious attempt to exercise a police authority's powers was defeated. The Scarman initiative was dead.

His report seemed to provoke the police to sulk, and neighbourhoods which lived in a state of perpetual economic emergency felt by the end of the decade that, far from being flooded by police, they had been evacuated, abandoned to their most dangerous elements. Community policing, never more than 'lollipops and pats on the heads for the kids', as one superintendent put it, was 'only a tactic, it was never a strategy'.

Thus the police seemed to flee the neighbourhoods that most needed protection. The crime crisis was becoming a crisis of public safety. In just three years, 400 households fled Scotswood, a Tyneside community overwhelmed by crime which, despite a local campaign against crime, could not command police co-operation. It was desperation of this kind that brought Robert Osborne out of his south London home brandishing a hammer against a tyre slasher. He didn't believe the police would help.

One senior officer insisted that community policing ought to mean that the police 'help a community to retake its own streets and feel it has a life of its own'. But that is contingent on creating a coalition with those active citizens who are trying to make life liveable in an economic environment that spawns equally vigorous criminal fraternities.

(Photograph omitted)