Thursday, 2 October 2008

All change at the cop shop

So, Sir Ian Blair has finally announced his resignation as Britain's Top Cop, having been told he did not have the confidence of the new Mayor of London (who is also the head of the supervisory body of London's police force). Within minutes of his announcement the lefties were lining up to praise him and the moderates were lining up to list his failings. Given great prominence was perhaps the most absurd political figure Britain has known in my lifetime, Ken Livingstone. As I understood his slurred rant on BBC radio he was arguing that the new Mayor of London had sought to politicise the police by undermining their leader. How wrong poor Ken is, in every possible way. One might have thought he would know better after thirty years in London and national politics, but no; I am not in the least surprised. For Ken's benefit let us look at the fundamentals.

The primary role of the police is to keep the peace. Stepping in to stop a fight or acting to prevent a fight is essentially non-political. In all other areas the work of the police is political, not necessarily party-political but political nonetheless. This is an inevitable consequence of the fact that the police must exercise discretions every day. How do they choose between targetting burglaries and targetting muggings? They can't target both because they don't have sufficient manpower, a balance must be struck. The decision of policy is taken not by PC Plod on the ground but by senior officers, of whom Top Cop is the most senior.

Politicians of all parties seek to influence such policy decisions by calling for their latest hobby horse to be given greater priority. The job of Top Cop is to listen to representations and decide, he is not obliged to follow edicts from the Home Secretary but will often do so. The government's suggestions on such matters have special weight because they are elected to office, yet Top Cop has the power to say he cannot comply with the Home Secretary's wishes because he has insufficient manpower. His final decision is a political decision.

On the ground PC Plod often has to choose which law to enforce and how to do so. This is not just a matter of choosing between arresting an offender or giving him a talking to, it can be a choice between attending one reported crime or another or between enforcing one law where to do so might cause another to be breached. These are value judgments of a political nature and can be influenced by PC Plod's own political views. PC Plod sees someone trying to break into a car and at the same time another car zooms past in excess of the legal speed limit, he cannot nab both so he has to choose, will it be car thief or car driver who ends up in the book? Which does he consider the more serious offence? This is a political decision. Lefty Plod is pleased to see an expensive car being broken into so he chooses to pursue the speeder, Righty Plod considers property more important than fast driving which has harmed no one, Wishy-Washy Plod can't decide and calls for back-up.

In everyday policing innumerable decisions must be taken which have a political element to them. In that respect politics and policing cannot be separated. Top Cop who always follows the line advocated by the Home Secretary of the day is unlikely to be at risk of losing his job simply because of a change in local or national government because he has not shown himself to be partisan, merely to be willing to take the path of least resistance.

It is different when Top Cop engages in public debate about the policies the police should follow. One would hope Top Cop always leaves the Home Secretary in no doubt where he stands on a particular issue, but he must do that in private so that his representations are part of the Home Secretary's decision making process. He must not do it in public because to do so is to descend into the political arena in too direct a way. His role is not to make the law but to enforce it in the way he sees best, arguing in public for a particular course of action brings him too close to the law-making function and hampers his ability to be seen to be exercise his operational discretion impartially.

Ken Livingstone is, of course, an extremist fanatic. He has no ability to see beyond his blinkered dream of State Socialism. Anything and everything that furthers his cause is acceptable to him, hence his failure to condemn the use of violence by those supporting his position. Anything he disagrees with is condemned as a plot by fascist reactionaries. That is his simple minded world. He cannot help it, it is just the way he is, just as Peter Sutcliffe could not help himself when he came across a prostitute. Having Top Cop come out in public saying all the things Ken holds dear was not, in poor Ken's mind, a political act, it was another step on the way to the joyous freedom only the lucky people of Cuba and North Korea enjoy. And so it is when the new Mayor says he does not have confidence in Sir Ian Blair because he has descended into the political arena, Ken must open his mouth and accuse his successor of playing politics with the police.

The next Top Cop must keep his mouth shut in public save for issuing standard assurances that his force is doing everything it can to fight crime. Anything more specific and he runs the risk of allying himself with one party, as Sir Ian Blair did, which inevitably risks alienating the other party and making it impossible for him to be trusted when government changes.

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