Research for my current book (working title ‘Boulter’s Green’) has led me down a particular lane – one which, as these things always do, opens up other areas of interest. Why am I inflicting it on you? I’m sort of interested in U.S. Police policy, and I want to learn more.
This is not – oh, please not – a history of UK policing. That would take pages I don’t have, and become instant yawn material; rather like trying to watch a boxed set of ‘Falcon Crest’ on Sunday night. But these less chewy bits might intrigue, if only because the lessons of history are so simple when we can just persuade ourselves to look.
In the 1950s good old ‘democratic’ Britain hatched out more police corruption scandals than a flock of Rhode Island Reds on a Norfolk poultry farm. Chief Constables of local forces had as much chance of avoiding arrest as 1970s paedophiliac TV personalities, while their ‘supervisory’ Watch Committees danced politically towards either left or right (mostly right) and gratefully accepted the proceeds of their position from (if contemporary accounts are to be believed) every size and shape of crime syndicate.
Of course, contemporary accounts should never be entirely believed; especially in Britain where organised ‘lobbies’ and the media jointly wait for anything remotely resembling naughtiness to pop its head up, then massage it into public outrage and hysteria. The system of policing in UK had survived on more or less a local model for better than a hundred years, and it was more probably the frenetic emergence of the political pressure group that created crises. Nevertheless, Government decided policing should be ‘centralised’ – the powers of local Watch Committees reduced, Chief Constables introduced at County level to oversee local forces, and a ‘modern’ approach to policing introduced.
Getting dry already, aren’t we?
You see, I had to rabbit through all that. Not just because of the result of, but to define the motive for those changes, which were really more to do with locally elected police coming under the control of the activist Left, than efficiency. You can’t control a legal strike picket if the orders have to come from a rampantly socialist Watch Committee. An hysterical press is always ready to tell simply everyone if you try. You can’t suppress the public will through hundreds of local and semi-independent forces: you have to do it from Whitehall.
So here’s the nub – let’s have a bit of nub.
Policing in UK up until those middle sixties years may not have been perfect, but it was concensus policing. If you didn’t vote for it, it was your fault. In the ‘fifties and ‘sixties the average ‘beat’ constable was usually an ex-serviceman in retirement; by definition middle-aged. The avuncular image was well appreciated: it sided with parental control. That constable’s business was to get acquainted with everyone on his patch, and every back alley or corner where a criminally-inclined infant sought room to develop. If he felt someone was getting a little too adventurous he would know: he would ‘have a word’ in the right ears. Sometimes, incidentally, it was not unknown for him to give a clip to those right ears, but that is another issue. It was proactive policing, and many a life of crime was nipped in the bud by this means.
Then the Home Office assumed control, and a fast-moving ‘modern’ image for policing replaced the stout, formidably blunt image of the local constable. His maturity of judgement and wisdom that was so valuable to the community was lost. He was too slow – he belonged to another age.
Younger, less mature individuals took his place. A rookie in a uniform scarcely inspired confidence, and may well have had a disproportionate sense of his own importance; worse still, to allow him to cover an increased area of ‘patrol’ he was put in a car. The Panda Car, low-powered in itself but painted all over with symbols of power removed that immediacy of communication between law and citizen. A man in a car is no more than a face; he is no longer a friend. He is no longer a part of the furniture of the street, and although he may do his best, he is less effective in detecting the small details, the covert plots and plans of back alley life. Being ‘known to the police’ now begins with a chase, an arrest, a charge and a sentence. In that crucial change in the ‘sixties the rule of law became enforcement, a reactive process which, in places, became and becomes very close to open conflict.
This relationship between police at street level and the public is the essence of good maintenance of law. Alas, though, policing has become a ‘career’. Not every profession lends itself to a university background, especially if those it tends to recruit are socially apart from those it needs to police, and intelligence is often interpreted as arrogance.
Not everything about the pre-‘sixties system was perfect. As society became more media-sensitive and litigious, the chances of a small local issue being promoted to a national cause increased, and those City Watch Committees were vulnerable. On the other hand, police and public were a homogeneous whole, and generally speaking the local constable was not an enemy to anyone with honest intent. Crime figures were much lower, and the lines of morality very clearly drawn.
Post-sixties, though, police and public are divided. All too frequently battle lines are drawn. ‘Containment’ is the order of the day and, quite often, all that can be achieved. There are so many detrimental outcomes that stem from this ‘us and them’ mentality: the Police are seen as defenders only of the Middle Class, and not even trusted by them. The force in general has become introspective to a point where arguably they re-invent the law at times, and certainly exhibit defensive hostility whenever they are challenged. The reactive enforcement process is also prohibitively expensive, because having allowed someone to develop their criminality you have also allowed them to employ expensive technology for their crime which you, as the enforcer, have to match. Hence cars that cost £65K and more, and very high salaries for very clever people to try and keep up.
All of which could be defended if crime figures had not risen more than tenfold in the last five decades, and if there was any sign of an end. Or if, in ‘modernizing’, the corruption issues cited as its original excuse had been resolved. They have not. The only perceptible shift has been from minor to major: the heists get bigger, unarmed people get murdered. Alienation intensifies.
And there is no way back.