We end 2012 with Britain’s police force in the dock. The arrest of a police officer in the wake of the ‘plebgate’ affair in Downing Street has now been followed by a second arrest. The evidence which led to Andrew Mitchell’s resignation as Chief Whip is under suspicion. The police appear to have leaked their internal logs to the press, fabricated evidence and attributed it to a fictional bystander. Though reports that he insulted the police – who prohibited him from cycling out of Downing Street – were said to be backed up by onlookers, CCTV footage shows no one standing by.
This is the third scandal to tarnish the police force in as many months. That they leak internal, unverified documents has already come out in the Leveson Inquiry. That they manipulate or falsify evidence was revealed in this year’s report into the Hillsborough tragedy. Indeed the account pieced together by the Bishop of Liverpool should have left us in no doubt of the degree of corruption and dishonesty which taints the police. At Hillsborough, innocent young fans lost their lives due to the initial incompetence and bad judgement of the police, compounded by a callous abrogation of their responsibility to ensure help reached the wounded and dying. What then followed was systematic abuse by the police of their own powers to falsify statements, lay a trail of false ‘evidence’, and falsely blacken the characters of the catastrophe’s victims.
The Mitchell affair is without the tragic consequences that April 15, 1989 held for human life, but over twenty years on, it shows that the police are still not only placing themselves above the law, but also against it.
The reasons for this culture of misconduct are many, but two should be highlighted.
First, the low level at which entry standards to the police forces are pitched. This was discussed in Politeia’s Policing Matters, which showed that new police recruits often fall far short of the average qualifications reached by most school leavers in England and Wales, and were a long way from the standard of entrants to the now legendary New York Police Department.
Second, the increase of police powers over the decades by governments desperate to win popular approval by fighting crime and disorder has blurred the separation of powers in our justice system. Laws should be made by Parliament, upheld by the police, enforced by the courts. Now the police enjoy powers to dispense summary justice. To take an example, fixed penalty notices and cautions can be issued by the police. Though not technically a conviction, cautions can lead to a criminal record without a court hearing or even a solicitor being consulted. As the powers of the police become greater and the role of the courts diminishes, so too do the liberties of the people. Meanwhile, the police are free to pursue their targets by fair means or foul, without the encumbrance of judicial scrutiny.
If we are to have a trustworthy, competent police force which is up to the job in hand, the first step will be to recruit abler officers, and concentrate on recruiting the best and brightest. But that will only address part of the problem. The big task for government now, is to rein in and indeed reverse the recent delegation of judicial powers to the police. By extending state power to and through the police, politicians and the government of the day have not protected, but rather endangered public safety, liberty and the rule of law.