Leading Article: A speedy way for the police to lose support

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The Independent Online
THE POLICE are criticised for the manner in which they carry out many of their tasks, but rarely for their approach to drivers who exceed motorway speed limits. In general they show a commendable flexibility towards those who exceed the 70mph limit on empty motorways, concentrating their attention on those who go recklessly fast, or whose driving is dangerous in other ways.

For how long will that sort of sensitivity last? The doubt arises from a questionnaire that the Home Office has sent to every police force. Its purpose is to find out what the police regard as their core functions. The clear possibility is that those reckoned to be non-core could then be contracted out. Traffic wardens were the first big step in that direction. Introduced in 1960, they have led inexorably to the over-zealous privatised clamping of cars in some boroughs. The present experiment with a commercial prison escort service is another. It would not be surprising if catching those who exceed speed limits joined a lengthening list of privatised road-policing tasks. Yet motorway police need to be committed to safety in all its forms and available to cope with accidents of varying seriousness. If, as with the clampers, incentives were offered to privatised speed cops, motorists driving at 71mph could find themselves being penalised: conceivably fined on the spot, more probably by post following electronic monitoring.

Privatisation would be damaging to the police, as well as unpopular. Indeed, the Home Office's questionnaire seems to derive from a myopic view of the police's relations with the public. No such pulse-taking is required to establish that the core role of the police is dealing with crime. But fulfilling that task is impossible without public trust. Establishing confidence requires contact between the police and the non-criminal public. Relations with motorists are one of many ways in which that can be achieved. If all non-core tasks were contracted out or privatised, the police would become a very narrow organisation that had lost much of its present level of public consent.