Craig Paterson: After Plebgate, a chance to challenge police attitudes

THE call by David Davis, the former Shadow Home Secretary, for a Royal Commission on Policing has added a powerful voice to a growing body of high profile police critics who have emerged in the wake of the Plebgate scandal.

The Haltemprice and Howden MP has been a long-standing critic of governmental encroachments upon people’s civil liberties and his entrance into the parliamentary storm over the abuse of police powers is telling.

While the political storm that surrounded Plebgate and the now discredited police accusations made against Andrew Mitchell were very much a Westminster village affair, the story has unravelled into a much broader and sustained questioning of police officer integrity and a 
“crisis of ethics” at all levels of the police service.

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Most importantly, the story has shifted from being about a spat between a police officer­ and politician to a debate on the values and trustworthiness of police officers in general.

Davis’s description of a culture of “clumsy cover­-ups” also acknowledges the damage that has been inflicted by similar cases.

The gross misconduct charge against North Yorkshire chief Grahame Maxwell – and Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) involvements with South Yorkshire’s Chief Constable David Crompton and former West Yorkshire chief Norman Bettison – all feed into this “crisis of ethics” and lack of public trust.

It is clear that the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in 2004 has failed to address the concerns about public confidence in the police that led to its establishment in the first place.

The IPCC has failed to capture the public’s support as an independent body that polices the police, while a multitude of reform packages have had insufficient impact on the dark corners of police culture that are built into the social imagination through television series such as Yorkshire author David Peace’s Red Riding trilogy.

This continued questioning of police legitimacy – the public’s confidence in the ability of the police to carry out their role in a fair, equitable and efficient manner – hurts the police service.

Improving public confidence in the police has been a policy priority for the past decade. Yet every positive development takes place with the spectre of high profile cases of police misconduct and, at the extreme, corruption, looming over their shoulder.

Despite all of this, the police retain substantial public support although, interestingly, this support dwindles whenever a person comes into contact with the police.

While the experience of being a victim, offender or witness to a crime undoubtedly contributes to this reduction, there remains a concern about police officer communication with the public – the moment at which police culture becomes visible.

The College of Policing’s code of ethics represents the latest attempt to address this issue. The code sets­ national standards for the honesty and integrity of police officers and seeks to build a culture of positive engagement with the public.

Contrary to public belief, the majority of police time is spent dealing with non­-criminal issues, yet police culture embodies a crime­-fighting ethos.

This paradoxical situation generates a frustration amongst police officers who are frequently drawn into the non­-criminal disputes that alarm public concern. It is parking, litter and neighbourhood disputes that most concern the public while it is violent and property offences that police culture interprets as real police work.

These inconsistent and fractured perspectives on policing help explain why there is an unwillingness to address some of the most fundamental questions about the role and purpose of the police service in a democratic society.

Are the police primarily law enforcers, or peace­keepers focused on crime prevention? At the moment the police are tasked with both.

A gap subsequently appears between community policing talk, the training officers receive, and the experience of street ­level community policing for the public.

Recent attempts to reform police training and leadership programmes failed to address this asymmetry and were subsumed by concerns about police cuts.

Given this uncertain and uneven political and policing landscape, it is unsurprising that discussions about what the police do and how they behave take on such a contradictory form.

Small policy changes just tweak the detail.

It is why David Davis is right to say that a Royal Commission on Policing is now required to understand exactly what the values and practice of democratic policing in 2013 should look like.­­­­

• Craig Paterson is principal lecturer in criminology at Sheffield Hallam University. His essay on police education in England and Wales will be published in Values in Criminology & Community Justice later this year.