Yesterday Mark Wallace set out in some detail how extraordinarily problematic is the attitude of too many senior police officers towards public order policing.
According to the doctrine set out by one senior officer, Ben-Julian Harrington, his officers might step up to defend property on occasion but they viewed their first role as making sure that “those taking part are safe”. That’s those taking part in a crime.
Such attitudes are clearly deeply embedded. We saw them during the 2011 riots, when it took days of mounting public anger for the police to accept that confronting the rioters to protect public and private property was, in fact, their job.
There seems little question then that the institutional culture of the police still needs, from a Conservative perspective, a serious overhaul, at least when it comes to public order policing. But achieving this is much easier said than done.
One initiative which clearly hasn’t worked is Police and Crime Commissioners. Harrington is the Chief Constable of Essex Police, so we might expect the local PCC to have offered at least some comment on his views. Yet there is no sign that Roger Hirst, who has been the Conservative incumbent since 2016, has said a word about it.
If the PCCs have fallen victim to producer capture, it should not be surprising. Public interest in the position has been so low that it can scarcely have provided much of a counterweight to the strong institutional pressures on any government body to fall into line with the permanently established and often very able lobbies of whoever they’re supposed to regulate or scrutinise.
But other Home Office initiatives of the past decade, such as the College of Policing and efforts to introduce more outside recruitment into the senior ranks, don’t seem to have made much of a difference either.
Combating the progressive drift of state institutions is not a problem confined to the police. Only yesterday Mark Lehain warned about how the ongoing disruption of schooling could be exploited by ‘the Blob’, the great un-slain hydra of the education sector, to roll back a decade’s worth of reform.
And if the problem remains that acute in education, which in the Coalition years received the full attention of Michael Gove, one of the Party’s most energetic reformers (not to mention one Dominic Cummings), it will be worse elsewhere. But it is especially important in the police, whose authority rests on impartially upholding the law but risk ending up as enforcers of popular opinion.
The present disorder has been relatively low-key. But that is no excuse not to attempt to correct course. Stress tests like this are valuable because they expose shortcomings in our institutional responses, allowing politicians and the police to address them before we next face a more serious challenge to public order.
What can be done? The Government could try to effect personnel change at the top of the profession, although Conservatives have typically been very bad at this. Proposals to introduce an army-style officer class, allowing direct recruitment into command positions, could be reconsidered. Perhaps the Home Secretary might review the legislation governing police responsibilities in public order scenarios, with a view to sharpening their requirements on intervention and prevention.
Alternatively, perhaps our friends and allies in Europe hold the answer. Many of these, including France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, supplement their civilian police forces with gendarmeries. France, in particular, sports the Gendarmerie Mobile, a nationwide force specialising in public order policing.
Whilst there wouldn’t be any need to blur the traditional British distinction between the military and the police, it could be possible to create a new, UK-wide specialist force – along the lines of the Ministry of Defence Police and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary – with a focus on riot control and related specialisms, perhaps taking the Metropolitan Police’s existing Territorial Support Group as a base.
This would not only help to separate community and public order policing, but creating a new institution would give the Government the opportunity to craft a brand-new institutional culture from the ground up. And all whilst bringing us closer to a European norm, too.
At the very least, the threat of it might spur officers such as Harrington to action next time.