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The Police Reform That Wasn’t

Mark Doyle, Op-Ed Columnist

December 2012

In an 1851 article called “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Charles Dickens described a night in the life of a detective in the Metropolitan Police Force, Charles Field, who allowed Dickens to tag along on his nocturnal circuit through the gambling dens and lodging houses of the ragged quarters of London. The Met was only a few decades old at the time (Robert Peel had created it in 1829), but already the new model of policing it embodied – professional, uniformed, visible, unarmed, and deeply rooted in the local community – had come to be regarded as one of those uniquely British institutions that expressed the essentially moderate and sensible character of its people. Unlike the gendarmes of France or Prussia (or, for that matter, the Irish Constabulary, another of Peel’s creations), London’s policemen maintained order not by frightening the people with horses and guns but by earning their trust through familiarity, good humor, and a sense of fair play, which, in turn, enabled them to exercise an invisible sort of power that was far more durable than a police regime built on terror. Such, anyway, was the official line, which Dickens duly reinforced with his description of Inspector Field on the beat, with even the criminals doffing their caps to him:

Coiners and smashers droop before him; pickpockets defer to him; the gentle sex (not very gentle here) smile upon him. Half-drunken hags check themselves in the midst of pots of beer, or pints of gin, to drink to Mr. Field, and pressingly to ask the honour of his finishing the draught. One beldame in rusty black has such admiration for him, that she runs a whole street’s length to shake him by the hand; tumbling into a heap of mud by the way, and still pressing her attentions when her very form has ceased to be distinguishable through it. Before the power of the law, the power of superior sense – for common thieves are fools beside these men – and the power of a perfect mastery of their character, the garrison of Rats’ Castle and the adjacent Fortresses make but a skulking show indeed when reviewed by Inspector Field.

This romantic image does not quite tally with reality – many historians (among them Robert Storch and Stanley Palmer) have shown that Victorian police were frequently the objects of resentment, ridicule, and violence from the working classes, especially when they interfered with time-honored plebeian amusements like badger baiting and street fighting – but the ideal of the genial bobby-on-the-beat, on nodding terms with all the local characters and working in close cooperation with the law-abiding and respectable public, survives to this day. Their surveillance duties may have been appropriated by CCTV cameras, and the real work of suppressing disorder may have been delegated to a new batch of heavily armed British gendarmes (those machine-gun toting cops visible in airports and large public gatherings, whose firepower even the Prussians would have envied), but the local police forces of Britain’s cities and towns, still unarmed and locally controlled, have retained something of their Victorian ethos, reflecting a distinctly British conception of decentralized, community-based policing that draws its legitimacy from the consent, rather than the coercion, of the policed.

Last month the Cameron government enacted perhaps the most sweeping police reform since the Second World War, a reform that is very much in line – on the surface, at least – with the Victorian idea of community policing. On November 15 voters in England and Wales elected the country’s first-ever Police and Crime Commissioners – police watchdogs, in effect, with the power to hire and fire chief constables and to shape the missions and, most importantly, the budgets of local forces. The idea is to give the public more control over the direction of their local forces, and thereby to enhance the democratic accountability of British police forces. Specifically, the government hopes these new PCCs (as they’re called) will be able to address scandals within the police services – the kickback allegations that have forced the resignation of several chief constables this year, the widespread police misconduct in the phone-hacking scandal, and so forth – in such a swift and transparent way as to restore people’s trust in the police.

It’s a nice idea, and actually rather a pleasant surprise coming from a party that is otherwise so allergic to democracy (see, e.g., Lords reform), but there are at least two problems with the plan. First, and most glaringly, hardly anybody bothered to turn out for the PCC elections. A mere 15% of eligible voters cast ballots in the November 15 election, the smallest turnout in British history. This embarrassment has been blamed on everything from the decision to hold the elections in November (not a traditional voting month in the UK, although voters in at least one other major democracy seem to have no problem finding their way to the polls in that month) to the public’s failure to understand just what it was they were supposed to be voting on. This last idea, the theory of voter ignorance, seems to be especially popular among Tories – among members of the very party, that is, which created the PCCs as a mechanism for greater democratic control over the police. If we follow the logic of this argument, then perhaps we should be grateful that more members of the ignorant public didn’t turn out to vote: if the people aren’t smart enough to understand the issues, then who wants them to have this sort of power over the police?

We shouldn’t let the election fiasco overshadow the larger problem with the Tories’ reform, however. This is, quite simply, that it will not address the core failing of British policing, which is not ethical failure at the top (though there has been plenty of that) but a trust deficit at the bottom. If last year’s riots demonstrated anything, it was that there exists a dangerous level of antagonism in the nation’s poor urban neighborhoods between young people and the police, a situation that has become only worse with the repeated revelations of racism among the police toward non-white urban youth. It was, after all, the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man, that triggered the riots. A subsequent investigation by the Guardian and the London School of Economics found that anger at the police, specifically the perceived overuse of stop-and-search tactics, motivated much of the rioting. In a survey of 270 rioters, 85% said that antipathy toward the police was an “important” or “very important” cause of the riots. As Raeka Prasad noted in the Guardian, “a significant factor in sparking the disturbances was the humiliation, unjust suspicion, lack of respect and targeting that characterises the way rioters felt police carry out stop and search.”

At the same time, the Met’s own figures showed that 66% of Londoners believe the police are doing a good job in their area and that stop-and-search tactics are effective. In a similar vein, another Guardian poll found that 86% of the British public believed that poor parenting and criminality were the main causes of the riots. If these are indeed the views of the general public, then it seems likely that the PCCs, who are elected by that same public (or those few who bother to turn up for the elections), will approach this issue from a similar perspective. Indeed, if the experience of America is any guide, the way for PCC candidates to win votes will be to advocate precisely those “tough on crime” positions that middle-class voters so love and working-class youth find so alienating. Meanwhile those who are being harassed by the police, it need hardly be said, are precisely those who are the least likely to vote in the PCC elections.

What British policing really needs, it seems, are more men like Inspector Field, even if the literary Inspector Field was himself, as I suspect, largely a product of Dickens’ fecund imagination. The myth of the genial bobby-on-the-beat, feared but respected by criminals, fawned over by toothless hags, swimming like a fish through the criminal underworld, a veritable cocktail of honesty, integrity, and grit poured into a buttoned blue suit, may have been a Victorian fantasy, but it is a useful fantasy all the same. The Tories, not exactly immune to the odd fit of Victorian nostalgia, would do well to return to Robert Peel’s original blueprint for the Met (but not for the Irish Constabulary) and the model of engaged, cooperative community policing they were meant to embody. And they should ditch the PCCs: I doubt anybody will even notice they’re gone.

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