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Boris's Bobbies

This blog was written on December 8th 2009. It makes the case against the Conservatives' approach to policing reform, in particular the idea of directly elected police commissioners.


Boris's Bobbies


According to the Telegraph last week the Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, intends Boris Johnson personally to take overall control of London's police. The cross-party Metropolitan Police Authority would be abolished and the national responsibilities of the Met would be sidelined. The Metropolitan Police force would in effect become the personal possession of Boris Johnson, with the full authority of the Conservative Home Secretary.

Mr Grayling admits quite openly that this is David Cameron's model for policing across the country.

This highly dangerous idea is only part of a pre-election flurry of comment and posturing about the role of the police. The problem is that too much of the discussion is about political showboating and too little about the real issues which face policing.

It is time to go back to first principles.

The two main challenges which the police face in fighting law-breaking are to collect and analyze intelligence about crime and to build and maintain strong and resilient partnerships with others in fighting crime. That is the basis on which they can then form and execute effective strategies to reduce overall levels of crime, in which they have had a good deal of success in recent years.

This intelligence-partnership approach applies at all levels of crime from local anti-social behaviour to international drug-dealing and terrorism. In each case the challenge for policing and security is to become more effective and more successful. The better they do, the lower will be the levels of crime. It's that simple.


The capacity to collect and analyze intelligence is determined by technological capability, which is rapidly improving, police capacity to use it and the legal framework.

In recent years a powerful range of new techniques has been developed. They include the extension of CCTV, the development of a DNA database, automatic number-plate recognition and the use of telecommunications data. These all add to more traditional forms of surveillance, such as phone tapping, which have become far more sophisticated.

Subject to the proper controls the result is that the police have in principle a far better capacity to understand and analyze the patterns of criminality which affect us.

That said the police do not always use this intelligence most effectively. Some forces still do not always give a high priority to the collection and use of intelligence. Indeed for many years "intelligence-led policing" was a controversial new innovation rather than standard practice. Data is not easily shared between police forces because computer systems are incompatible. Ideas like a National Firearms Register were difficult to implement. Nor is intelligence sufficiently shared across the criminal justice system or with other public agencies.

More seriously, as both the Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Association of Chief Police Officers have identified, many police forces are themselves too small and inefficient to collect and analyze the intelligence capacity they need to attack organized crime. Unfortunately the steps which I took in 2006 to rectify this problem were subsequently dropped as a result of vocal opposition from some Conservative backwoodsmen, though they are returning to fashion now, particularly in light of financial pressures.

And all collection of intelligence takes place within a legal framework which inevitably and rightly reflects a constant tension between civil liberties and the security of society. Measures like the Human Rights Act indicate a welcome general shift towards civil liberties and this is the modern framework within which intelligence is collected.

A central means of reducing crime further is to collect and use intelligence better, within a legal framework which protects civil liberties. The job of Government and politicians should be to help that to happen.


The police cannot fight crime on their own. They need to work with the community they serve, which is very much the British tradition.

Locally this means working with shops to fight shoplifting, with schools to reduce youth drug abuse, with nightclubs to reduce alcohol-related crime, with hospitals to reduce violent crime, with car manufacturers or car park operators to reduce car crime, with fire services to fight arson and so on. All these forms of collaboration have been encouraged and given legal force by the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which was a pioneering piece of legislation.

Such partnerships nevertheless remain very patchy across the country and between different services. They require genuine commitment from the partners and the level of real engagement from the police itself varies with the personalities and styles of senior officers. For example I always found it difficult to get real interest from health and social services but much better from housing and some parts of the private sector, like shop chains and pubs.

In recent years, the strong development of neighbourhood policing (where a small team of police and police community support officers is dedicated to a particular, small community) has dramatically improved these partnerships and also provides genuine local accountability as police report levels of crime and the actions they are taking to address it. Similarly effective strategies at a district or county level both raise anti-crime performance and improve accountability.

Collaboration is also essential to fight crime nationally and internationally. The relatively new Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) was established to promote this, but more work is needed. Since the major organized crime and terrorist organizations are entirely international in their operation we need much stronger co-operation with foreign police and security services, particularly in the European Union.

Again the job of Government and politicians should be to build and strengthen such partnerships, including at the European level.

Keeping the Eye on the Ball

What the police need to do, and politicians should be supporting them, is to keep their eye on the ball of reducing levels of crime. As I argue above this comes principally through improving intelligence and developing effective partnerships.

Keeping this focus is inevitably difficult when there is enormous (and understandable) media and political focus on specific crimes, on the many inadequacies of the criminal justice system, including civil liberties issues, and on particular police failings, such as the policing of the G20 demonstration or the tragic killing of Jean-Charles de Menenez. When charges and counter-charges reverberate around these issues the police can often find themselves playing a very passive and responsive role, rather than offering the leadership which is needed.

However this necessary focus moves from difficult to impossible when the putative Party of Government, the Conservatives, decides to undermine the whole fabric of policing.

The police well understand Conservative attacks on useful intelligence techniques such as the DNA Database, CCTV and the use of telecommunications data. They know that the Conservative leadership refuses to face up to the challenges posed by modern terrorism. They know that Conservative local government has been the least ready to engage in proactive partnerships with the police. They appreciate that the Conservatives visceral anti-Europeanism makes pan-European crime fighting more difficult at a time when it is much more necessary.

But the last straw is to learn, on top of all this, that the Conservatives propose to remove operational independence from the police by abandoning cross-party checks and balances and permitting crude populism to determine police priorities.

"Boris's bobbies" may do it for the strategists in Conservative Central Office. But is a betrayal of the absolute fundamental values and strengths of British policing.

Charles Clarke MP


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