A healthy relationship between the police and the public is reliant on trust, so when the integrity of police officers, staff and the institution itself is called into question we should be profoundly concerned. Our system of policing by consent is admired across the world and any threat that undermines that consent, and by extension the legitimacy of policing should be countered urgently and with a collective determination.
The events that have led to concerns over integrity are varied in nature and time. From Hillsborough to ’Pleb-gate’, from current and ongoing investigations into senior officers, to a recent criminal conviction of an officer over press leaks. In addition a survey conducted in 2012 by ICM for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary showed that 22% of respondents did not trust the police to tell the truth.
You may point out that these issues are different and are unjustifiably conflated into an issue of integrity, but I disagree. At the heart there is a core that connects the concerns. That is a belief or a finding that decisions have been taken by public servants that are not in the public interest.
These challenges are being actively debated on #scc13 and have made me pause for thought. We’ve been provoked and encouraged by a range of contributors to consider the implications for our leadership, and I’m indebted to them and #scc13 colleagues for many of the ideas in this blog.
An emerging theme in response to the challenge is transparency. Would a radical improvement in the transparency of the police be sufficient to restore trust? Would shining a clear and searching spotlight on police practices lead to improvement in public service?
One analogy put forward for this argument was that of a successful vehicle service centre chain that installed clear glass walls between the customer waiting area and the service bays. Care was taken over the cleanliness and organisation of the service area, which was of course visible for all to see. Professor Martin Innes of the Universities’ Police Sciences Institute in Cardiff has spoken about ‘see through’ policing services as an increasingly common feature in contemporary policing. So the garage analogy would seem appropriate.
I agree that increased transparency would have a positive effect on policing practices. For some time I’ve argued for more publicly available police information and I admire what Hampshire Constabulary are doing with CrimeReports.
Exposing decision making, the information used to reach those decisions and the rationale applied to wide public scrutiny can only strengthen the public interest test. Of course there will always be confidential matters in policing, necessary to protect people and property facing real risk of harm. Restoring trust will give confidence that sound judgements on these matters can be taken by police officers in secret, in order to protect the vulnerable.
I’d suggest that there’s a bigger ambition than transparency. A window into policing services is better than a locked gate, but it is still a barrier.
So, consider another analogy. There was a time when parents were kept outside the school gate, both literally and metaphorically. For me this is one difference between providing an education to children and education being part of the community. Involvement of parents in all aspects of school life may not always be the most comfortable feeling for the professionals involved. We know as parents we can be unpredictable, difficult, awkward or demanding, as well as friendly and helpful. But, it leads to a different relationship. A better relationship where families feel they have a stake in their children’s education. A relationship where schools are not alienated from communities, but an active part of them. So, in policing terms – do our organisations leave people at the gate, or do we invite them in to participate?
I’m convinced of the importance of this, because of that word ‘alienation’. Sir Harry Burns, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, introduced us this week to the Rectorial Address to Glasgow University on alienation given by Jimmy Reid in 1971. The challenge at the time was one of economics and employment in Scottish ship building, but the message was clear.
“It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”
When there is a disconnect between an institution of the state and the people it serves there is a danger that decisions are taken without the people in mind. Without public interest at the front and centre.
So what could a police service open to participation look like? Over the last 10 years there has been much investment in public engagement in neighbourhood policing, but this is much broader than that. This is about participation in each and every aspect of policing. From governance to delivery, performance to scrutiny. It is here that I believe we need radical improvement. Innovations that will make each and every member of a police service think, feel and behave differently in relation to public involvement in the service provided.
The graphic below shows some early ideas and ‘thinking out loud’ from #scc13 . You will notice that these are not about more rules, regulation, checklists and standards. The suggestions are about opening up police practices, not closing them down. In my view it’s important to develop these ideas in public too. I hope that by sharing my thoughts in this blog, it’s an open invitation to participate in this debate. So please do post your views in response. What I can say is that amongst #scc13 there is a real desire to continue to improve policing in the public interest. We must act swiftly to halt any further concerns about police integrity and work hard to earn public trust, which is vital for continuation of policing by consent.