Police — peacekeepers or law-enforcers?

Towards a rediscovery of policing’s social role

The Howard League has just published a new essay by renowned criminologist Professor Robert Reiner questioning the role of the police as we know it. This is the first in a new series of challenging pamphlets entitled ‘What If…?’ in partnership with the Mannheim Centre at the London School of Economics. Professor Reiner argues for a rediscovery of the social role of policing, beyond crime control, and a frank recognition that the police are primarily there as a first line response to people in distress.

Reiner, who sits on the Labour party’s justice policy working group, argues that “the most important address for crime control is not Scotland Yard but 11 Downing Street” as the police can only contribute to social pacification in conjunction with broader policies spreading inclusive citizenship and social justice.  He accuses the Labour government under Blair of initiating an “arms race of ever tougher law and order”. 

He suggests that police performance should not be judged in terms of the overall crime rate, on which they can have only a marginal impact. Nor should crime detection be a crucial indicator of policing, as it is more a function of crime levels than the quality of investigations. 

This exploration of the role of the police comes at an important time. The process for electing Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales has just begun, so it has never been more important to define the role of the police.  Are they peacekeepers or law enforcers?

The elected PCCs are being introduced to give the public a say in policing in their area. The PCCs will hold police forces and chief constables to account. They will set local policing priorities and decide how council tax is spent on crime and policing issues. The priority of crime control is built into the title itself, as though the police’s impact on crime is a given.  The government’s advocacy of PCCs is riddled with what Reiner calls the “CSI fallacy”: that policing is a matter of uncomplicated technical skill and efficiency.

Professor Reiner argues that electing police commissioners does not guarantee democratic policing, pointing out several possible dangers to bear in mind:

• Tyrannies of the majority (oppression of unpopular ‘police property’ groups);

• Trammelling of due process: failing to respect legal and civil rights;

• Democracy becoming plutocracy, government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich; the ‘finest government money can buy’ in the words of American journalist Greg Palast;

• Unequal access to knowledge about policing and media power, frustrating evidence-based policy development.

The first of these dangers, and its potential impact on young people, has been of particular interest to the Howard League.  In a letter to peers during the passage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility bill, we explicitly raised the issue that young people may be exploited by electioneering police and crime commissioners. 

PCCs keen to brandish increases in arrest rates as proof of their effectiveness could easily base their campaigns on an anti-young people agenda which sees them as little more than “low-hanging fruit” who also happen to be unable or unlikely to vote.  In part this populist danger is a logical conclusion of introducing electoral politics into policing.  But it also suggests that the political consensus around policing as crime control is unlikely to be fundamentally disturbed by the introduction of the PCCs.

Of course, crime fighting is the dominant image of police in the media, which remains the main source of information for the public.  The news media and police procedural dramas focus overwhelmingly on successful police investigations of very serious violent crimes, especially murder, although these form only a small part of the police workload. And the police are spectacularly less successful in clearing up crimes than media stories suggest: far fewer than 2 per cent of crimes result in a conviction.

In reality, the central police role is to function as an emergency service against what Professor Reiner terms “a sea of troubles”, where only a minority of calls to the police unequivocally concern crimes. The political consensus that the police should be primarily engaged in crime fighting overstates their ability to control crime, when the drivers for disorder largely lie in deeper social causes. This creates unrealistic expectations and diverts attention from the police’s more fundamental peacekeeping role.

The government’s solution is to advance the consensus view of policing even further than before. Criminal catching will be paramount and the police need only be properly incentivised by elected commissioners in order to deliver on crime reduction, despite the threat of mounting economic and social collapse all around us. 

Perhaps there shall be some brave candidates in the PCC elections ready to challenge the very consensus that is propelling them onto the electoral stage.  But we shouldn’t hold our breath.

About the author

Anita Dockley is research director of the Howard League for Penal Reform. She is responsible for developing the charity’s research capacity, forging links with academics and universities, funders and partner organisations. Her own research interests include suicide and self-harm in prisons, women in prison and order and control in the prison environment.