Can public confidence in the police be restored?

Photo credit: Fred Dawson

Photo credit: Fred Dawson

In the most recent report published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), Chief Inspector of Constabulary Tom Winsor stated that policing in Britain has been “damaged but is not broken”.

Recent controversies that have been brought to light have given impetus to the thought that the police are corrupt. The inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence went so far as to suggest that the police was “institutionally racist”. It is apparent that public relations have at least been ‘damaged’ due to these incidents, but how reversible is this?

According to a recent survey taken by ComRes for ITV, only 18% of people disagreed with the statement that ‘coverups take place in the police force’.  

The HMIC references events like the Hillsborough report as one of those to have damaged relations. Clearly, such failures leave us feeling more and more as though the idea of coverups taking place is a realistic idea.

Hillsborough was an issue of overcrowding and delayed response time, but it was portrayed as a separate issue of football hooliganism, with estimates emerging that 50% of the victims’ reports had been altered in favour of the police.

Consequently, there is a strong notion that the police behave in a corrupt and particularly prejudiced manner; some police statements go so far as to claim that the “drunk” Liverpool fans pickpocketed the dead.

In fact, recent reports have suggested that a huge amount of fans were assisting the attempts to save lives. The prejudice on the part of the police was aimed at the working class as a means of covering up their own faults, through the implication that all fans are hooligans.

The HMIC report also cited the Stephen Lawrence case as having affected public relations. Whilst only 28% of white Britons agree with the statement that ethnic groups are unfairly stopped and searched, 57% of BME groups believe this to be the case.

The issues raised create difficulties as they go against what the police are meant to be: unbiased and a ‘friend to all’. Concerns surrounding how to make the police as non-political as possible are deep-rooted; they were not allowed the vote until 1855.

People clearly still feel as though the police are biased in nature, with incidents such as their behaviour during the miners’ strikes having heightened feelings of unfair policing. There were strikes on which the police were accused of “set[ting] the tone” by bringing riot vans and dogs to what were simple demonstrations.

Given that these people were allowed no pay and the government also stopped families of strikers claiming benefits, there is a realistic fear of animosity. Yet the police’s support of the government raises difficult questions about their duties in regards to their political alignment.

One memoir of a policeman stated “we were Maggie’s boys” but “we were supposed to be impartial”. It is apparent that it becomes difficult to assess the success of the police. They cannot be politically aligned, yet they are told that they have to handle issues such as riots in order to maintain the peace.

Surveys have also suggested that the idea of a ‘bobby on the beat’ is no longer comforting, because people associate the sight of a policeman with crime and anti-social behaviour, not the prevention of them.

As a result, it is evident that public relations with the police have been damaged. But for the police to police successfully, public consent and an atmosphere of mutual respect are essential. Perhaps there is a need to focus on community-centred policing, and for a repairing of the policeman’s image as the ‘Great British Bobby’. Whether or not this is possible is another question entirely.

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