Letter: The importance of retaining local accountability for Britain's police

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The Independent Online
Sir: Sir John Wheeler's article 'How criminals cross the thin blue line' (9 February) serves to highlight the dangers of simple sweeping analysis and dogma masked as much-needed reform of an ailing service.

Sir John claims that an 'avalanche of resources' have failed to stop crime rising, and that restructuring the police service is the answer to greater efficiency and reducing crime.

Resources have increased since 1979. From a low wage and manpower base, the service now recruits and retains a good standard of police officer. However, examination of trends between 1981-91 demonstrates only a 3 per cent increase in police establishment. This compares with an 87 per cent increase in reported crimes per officer, a 34 per cent increase in detected crimes per officer and a 90 per cent increase in 999 calls attended: productivity increases any organisation would be proud of and ones that cannot be dismissed simply because crime rates have risen and the police are deemed by some to have failed.

Both government and police policy have for many years acknowledged that crime is not just a police responsibility, but a partnership with central and local government, other agencies and the community at large.

Sir John comments on 'the bogus notion of local accountability' and the 'irrelevance' of democratically elected local councillors. Police officers are committed to a local service delivered by local officers who know their community and are locally accountable to them. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) believes that a significant element in any revitalised police authority should be democratically elected councillors. A broader membership, yes; faceless appointees of central government, no.

There are some aspects of policing that need to be co-ordinated nationally, for instance, the fight against terrorism, greater intelligence on organised crime and drug trafficking. Thus the National Criminal Intelligence service has been established; this and regional crime squads deal essentially with non-community crime. But property-related crime is local and opportunistic in nature, requiring local responses.

Sir John's implication that chief constables are a breed of dinosaurs, resisting any change, 'keen to preserve their fiefdoms', is frankly nonsense. Both the Home Secretary and Prime Minister have acknowledged that 'the police service is in the vanguard of change among the public services'. We have led from within on a number of management changes. We have worked with the Audit Commission to produce wide-ranging performance indicators and our quality of service initiative pre-dates the Citizen's Charter.

Acpo will co-operate in any review of the service, but the police service, local and central government must work together in a coherent programme for change.

If it is the Home Secretary's wish to go down in history as another Peel, he will no doubt follow his example, engage in debate, listen, and resist glossy, quick, structural fixes. Acpo will work with him to develop a long-term strategic view of a service that everyone relies upon, in order that we meet both political and community expectations.

Yours sincerely,

JOHN H. BURROW

Chief Constable

Essex Police

Chelmsford, Essex

10 February

The writer is president of the Association of Chief Police Officers.

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