You could be forgiven for thinking that, in comparison to other behemothic human rights issues in the UK at the moment, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill is, well, rather vanilla. Part 1 delicately replaces Police Authorities with Police and Crime Commissioners. On closer inspection, however, this is a real cause of concern. By requiring Commissioners to be elected by the public and, thereby, politicising the whole process we run the gauntlet of cultivating an environment in which miscarriages of justice are more likely to occur.
A significant reason for resisting this reform is the irrefutable tenet that the police must not be swayed by public opinion. They must not arrest someone just because the public are calling for blood. They must not charge someone just because the media portray a suspect as ‘lewd’ and ‘creepy’. They must not prosecute someone they suspect is actually innocent just because public pressure demands results.
Unfortunately, history reflects this sad truth. In the case of the Bridgewater Four, police manufactured evidence to get a false confession out of Patrick Molloy. Undoubtedly, underlying such police transgression was the need to relieve the perceived burden placed on them by the public. They needed to demonstrate to the public that they had solved the brutal and inexplicable murder of the young Carl Bridgewater even if this compromised the accuracy of the result. Moreover, following an IRA motorway bombing which killed 12, the conviction of Judith Ward concluded a period of tremendous public pressure for the perpetrator to be brought to justice. A previous post recounts the flagrant misconduct of the police in that case in order to achieve the result.
Consequently, it is clear that even without Part 1 of this new Bill, there is always the danger that public pressure will foster miscarriages of justice. Part 1, however, appears to reinforce this trend by legislating for public opinion. The public are now in charge. It seems apparent that if Commissioners are to be elected by the public, then they will presumably attempt to curry favour with the public by pursuing the most populist policies and toeing a populist line. Unfortunately, due process is not always popular. Appeasement of the majority, however, will filter down through the ranks and public emotion could be allowed to influence a discipline, a prerequisite of which is that it be conducted dispassionately.
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, gave evidence to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill committee last week. She maintained that, ‘Of course the police should be accountable – but the question is accountable to what? To who?’ In a similar fashion we might compare police accountability to judicial accountability. There are ways of holding someone to account without requiring that they be elected by the public.
Nonetheless, the solution is certainly not politicising the organisation. It is important that the decisions made and the powers at the top are not dogged in politics. Trust in the police is essential to the wellbeing and security of a society and it must continue to function without becoming mired in the political battlefield. The police must not be tied to the leg of party politics, so fragile to stumbling.