In a democracy the police need to be independent in important respects. We all want the police to investigate people connected with the government fearlessly if they have good reason to suspect they have committed crimes. We wish them to resist any temptation by those in power to have their political enemies investigated on trumped up charges. We expect our police to bring a neutral independence to consideration of crime and suspects, where the results of their labours are driven by the evidence rather than by any wish to please those in power , or through any sense of revenge.
This much is usually common ground between the political parties and within Parliament. So too is the agreement that day to day running of the police is a matter for their leaders and does not normally warrant or require intervention by politicians. The Home Secretary and the Chairmen and women who run the Police Committees do not expect to help make daily decisions about what the police are doing, how many officers are working or where they are patrolling.
It is also common ground that when it comes to deciding how much money to spend on the police, that is the job of the politicians. The money has to be voted by Parliament and by Councils. When a police force needs a new Chief Constable it is the politicians who are involved in making the decison. The police accept that they have to report on how they have spent the money and how effective their policing has been through the politicians. The police can seek changes to the law where they think that would help, but it is the politicans who decide on any such changes.
So far so good. However, there are areas of overlap between these distinctive roles that require collaborative working and understanding. There are times when the police wish to influence the decision on how much money and how many people they need, by taking their case public to influence the politicians. The police may have views on who should be the next Chief Constable in a given area and may let that be known. The politicians may have views on what overall police priorities should be , or on how the money should be spent, so they may use public debate to influence the style or thrust of policing.
Both sides accept there are areas where there has to be joint working and compromise or negotiated agreement. That is why Ministers set up a Cabinet Committee to consider the recent outbreak of looting, and why senior poplice officers attended. The senior police figures saw nothing unconstitutional or unusual in the Ministerial interest in what was happening. There did need to be a forum for the police to explain their tactics and their intentions to the politicians who in turn had to explain them to the press and public. There needed to be a forum in which the police could ask the government if they needed extra resources or changes to the law. The detailed discussion of the extent of the problem and the best response was best conducted in private. The politicians could help explain the public mood and expectation to the police, and the police could bring their proessional expertise to bear on what was feasible.
It is a pity there have been sharp exchanges over who did what and who is to blame. The truth in a democracy is the government has to take responsibility both for the failure to contain the looting at the beginning, and for the success in controlling it later. They in turn have to hold the police to account for their successes and their failures, though that is best done in private exchanges. When doing so Ministers need to have realistic expectations of what can be done within the agreed laws and budgets, but also to expect high standards. Ministers can review progress through review meetings, annual reports, annual budget discussions and when they come to appoint new leaders. When there is a serious problem or crisis Ministers have always been more active.
In recent days I have posted on five occasions about the looting and violence. These five posts have prompted 807 moderated comments – and still a few others I am working on – including one post that is the first I have written to bring in more than 200 replies. I think it shows many of you want reform in this country and think the events of the last few days might start to bring it about.