Leading Article: A new rhythm on the beat

Click to follow
THERE is much to discuss at the Police Federation conference, which starts in Brighton tomorrow. But pensive officers are beginning to step back and see that there is a more important issue at stake. Over the past year, the Government has set in train fundamental reforms of the way the police are managed, disciplined and paid. Making sure that the outcome of these reforms is satisfactory is a matter of the highest concern for police officers - and for the public.

A useful thinking point can be found in the analysis of crime trends by Beatrix Campbell that we published last month. The leap in crime suffered by England and Wales during the Eighties, the analysis showed, has not been matched in Scotland. Scottish crime as a whole was up only 5 per cent on the decade, compared with 49 per cent south of the border. Yet this is not because of lower unemployment or fewer one-parent families; Scotland has more of both. Rather, Scotland's reassuring statistics seem to be the result of two factors: greater public trust in the police, as evidenced by higher reporting rates; and greater emphasis by the police themselves on investigating crimes, rather than interrogating suspects. In Scotland, the police are allowed to hold a suspect for only six hours; in England and Wales, the figure is 72 hours.

These differences seem to have led to better relations between Scottish police and the communities in which they work. Similar results can be achieved if police officers patrol on foot rather than by car; if they are particularly sensitive in their treatment of ethnic minorities; and if they concentrate more on preventing crimes than on outgunning criminals by force of arms.

A reassuring note for this week's conference can be seen in a Gallup poll which shows that police constables are not in favour of being routinely armed. Instead, they and the public seem to be keener on defence than attack: body armour, for instance, or pepper sprays that can be used temporarily to disable an assailant. There is good news for relations between police and local communities, too, in Michael Howard's recent retreat from a plan to pack police authorities with his own placemen.

Inside Britain's police forces, there is still debate about the Sheehy committee's proposals on police pay, and its now discredited suggestion that police officers should be put on fixed-term contracts. There is no doubt that performance may be harder to measure in a police force than in the tobacco company where Sir Patrick Sheehy gained his expertise.

But the broader reforms have helped establish an atmosphere in which British policing is looked at as a management, as well as a social, issue. With more responsibility for setting their own targets and achieving them, chief constables and the officers they lead now have an opportunity to respond better to what local communities want - and to be judged on how well they achieve that. That must be good for the police, and the public.