British policing has ‘lost its way’, says top officer

British policing has “lost its way” amid the “noise and clutter” of Government targets, initiatives and new laws, the chief of inspector of police has said.

(TELEGRAPH)   Denis O’Connor, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, told The Daily Telegraph that forces have “drifted away” from the core basics of frontline policing and serving the public.

Mr OConnor spoke after he unveiled a critical HMIC report into protest policing, following the G20 demonstrations Photo: GETTY

Mr O'Connor spoke after he unveiled a critical HMIC report into protest policing, following the G20 demonstrations Photo: GETTY

The Government, local authorities and police chiefs have made “too many knee jerk reactions” by throwing new legislation and initiatives at the problems of law and order.

“The principles of policing get drowned out in the noise,” Mr O’Connor said.

“You need to look at the number of units and departments at the Home Office, all the officials and the different committees and ask this question: ‘Do they think about the principles and values of the British model of policing?’”

Centrally imposed targets have been criticised for distorting local police priorities to chase minor crimes. Red tape has diverted bobbies from the beat and Labour has also created new crimes at a rate of nearly one a day since 1997. A separate report today claims that police officers are only solving nine offences a year.

Mr O’Connor spoke after he unveiled a critical HMIC report into protest policing, following the G20 demonstrations in April.

It disclosed that in public order law alone, there had been 61 amendments to legislation in the past six years.

“Police are uncertain of their duties and the powers they may exercise,” the report said.

Mr O’Connor called for a return to the ideals defined by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, of which the most important was “the police are the public and the public are the police” and advocated an “approachable, impartial, accountable style of policing based on minimal force and anchored in public consent”.

He told the Telegraph: “That was an ideal but there’s been some drift away from that. We have lost our way.”

The Home Office has recently introduced a single target for police of improving public confidence, after years of officers chasing minor crimes to hit multiple targets.

Mr O’Connor said that centrally-imposed targets were a “well intentioned” measure to tackle problems such as anti-social behaviour but had become a problem when “the machinery came to dominate what police officers did” and took away their discretion.

He added that police performance and accountability is still a “cluttered” landscape.

“You have got Government, you have got regulators like myself, you’ve got local partnerships, you’ve got Government offices, a whole series of interests.

“If you add it all together and put on a piece of paper the links to show who is providing information, who is asking for information, who is suggesting new initiatives … it makes the London Underground map look like a walk in the park.

“There are just so many people, with so many different interests in play, it is very noisy.

“I think the whole thing needs rationalising significantly.

“That will hopefully give a better connection between the police and the people.”

The chief inspector said that he is working with officials at the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) who want to reform practices.

The Telegraph has highlighted how police have faced criticism for failing to visit every victim of crime, no matter how minor the offence, in a time-saving initiative which has seen a third of all crimes “screened out” by officers.

Last month, Mr O’Connor disclosed how his inspectors found that more than four out of five police forces were failing to respond adequately to the public. Some police stations were not open when advertised, and at one unnamed force almost one in five non-emergency calls were ignored during one month.

In other forces calls to neighbourhood policing teams were never answered and websites carried out-of-date information about opening times and public meetings.

“That does not do a lot for approachability,” Mr O’Connor said.

Last month Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Manchester, also criticised politicians’ involvement in “whatever initiative tends to be going” — such as the anti-knife crime campaign, which was set up after a series of murders in London.

Mr O’Connor said that the public also find it hard to hold police to account because of over-complicated crime statistics and added that the impartiality of police was in “dangerous and difficult territory” when officers engaged in debates about issues such as the detainment of terrorism suspects for 90 days.

The chief inspector was speaking after he unveiled a critical report into public order policing, following the G20 protests in April in which officers were heavily criticised for their heavy handed and “militaristic” approach.

The crux of the problem came from shortcomings in tactics, standards and leadership of specialist public order officers, because training was outdated and inconsistent.

Mr O’Connor called for the government to introduce a set of “overarching principles” to guide police on the use of force, informing officers about what constitutes appropriate behaviour in “all areas of policing business”.

He said that health and safety legislation which means officers have to assess the risk during their work has made the police “too defensive”. They were quick to put on their riot kit at public order events – sometimes giving them a “military” look.

Mr O’Connor added that when police were making arrests or searching properties they should consider keeping the impact to a minimum in the neighbourhood by being “smooth, quiet, and relatively discreet”.

“I’m not sure people feel that’s always the case about the way some of those operations are done,” he said.

The massive increase in new laws passed by Labour has left police forces “awash with legislation”, he said.

Many officers “poor or indifferent understanding of the law” meant that police were not providing the service they should to the public, Mr O’Connor added.

He has called on Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, to issue a national code of practice to ensure all 43 police forces in England and Wales deal with protest in the same way.

Acpo’s lead officer for uniformed operation, the chief constable of South Yorkshire, Meredydd Hughes, said O’Connor’s report would “shape the future of national public order policing”.

“It represents the first time that British policing has examined modern protest in such a public way,” Hughes said. “It will drive changes in our preparation for protest and our relationships with those involved.”

A study from the Institute of Public Police Research found that detections per officer fell from 10.2 offences for each officer in 2003/04 to 9.4 offences per officer last year.

Overall crime detection little improvement over the past decade showed little sign of improvement with just 28 per cent of recorded crimes “cleared up” in 2008/09 – little different from the 29 per cent detection rate in 1998/9, according to a new report.

Detection rates varied enormously from force to force, the report also found.

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