Earlier this month, I wrote about how the Government needed to get a grip on public order policing, and Mark Wallace argued that the police’s limp-wristed tactics in Bristol and elsewhere were emboldening the mob.
The past two weeks have done nothing to diminish that assessment. We have seen the inevitable ‘counter-protests’, and now an establishment which bent over backwards to facilitate one form of allegedly unsafe mass public gathering is spitting feathers at Britons flocking to be beach.
We have reached the point where at least one force is now operating an explicit double standard, ‘facilitating’ a Black Lives Matter vigil whilst reminding the public that all other mass gatherings, “including counter-protests”, remain illegal.
What shape such action takes is an open question. In my last piece, I floated the idea of hiving off public order policing from the regular forces and assigning responsibility to a new, UK-wide specialist constabulary, in a similar – but not identical – fashion to the way many European nations employ a gendarmerie.
In response, Will Tanner of Onward suggested on Twitter that such an ‘oppressive’ policing model was contrary to the British policing tradition, and the ‘Peelian Principles’ upon which this is founded. Fleshing out his thoughts in Prospect, he described the proposal as ‘militaristic’.
This is misleading. For starters, the model outlined above employs no structures or strategies not already employed in British policing. The Ministry of Defence Police and Civil Nuclear Constabulary are two already-extant specialist forces, and the Territorial Support Group the existing specialist public-order unit. I’m simply applying one existing organisational model to another existing operational model.
(It’s also worth remembering that Theresa May, Tanner’s former boss, employed double standards on such issues, waxing pious about how water cannon had no place on British streets whilst they were deployed on British streets in Northern Ireland.)
On the subject of actual gendarmeries, France is by no means the only European country to operate one: they are also employed by such authoritarian regimes as Portugal and the Netherlands. As for concerns that the UK might follow America down the path of hyper-militarised policing, this has arisen there in large part via the US Armed Forces selling off vast quantities of military surplus. Britain, which has a patchy record of equipping even its on-duty soldiers, is unlikely to face this particular problem.
But Tanner’s interpretation also misrepresents the Peelian Principles themselves. If one actually reads the ‘Nine Principles of Policing‘ set out by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, one finds little support for the indulgent, conflict-averse tactics favoured by many senior officers today.
For example, the very first duty laid on the police is “to prevent crime and disorder”. ‘Prevent’. Not peacefully facilitate in the hope of picking up the perpetrators afterwards from video footage.
The next one reminds them that their ability to operate effectively is “dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.” This is where ‘policing by consent’ comes from.
But note that it is the consent of the broad public, not the rioters, and in 2011 polls clearly showed that voters strongly disapproved of the feeble initial response of the police to the riots in London and elsewhere.
In fact, not only did the public ‘consent’ very strongly to a broad range of ‘militaristic’ tactics – the only one which polled under 50 per cent support was live ammunition, which still got 33 per cent – but fully 77 per cent of those polled backed deploying the Army. This put the police in violation of the First Principle, which mandates them to maintain order “as an alternative to their repression by military force”.
What about the Fifth Principle: “To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws…” How does that square with the current, pronounced tendency towards what Sam Ashworth-Hayes has dubbed ‘morality policing?
There are sections of the Principles which advise restraint in physical force policing. But take a closer look. Here’s the Sixth Principle, my emphases:
“To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.”
So that’s simply counselling the police against using force where the law can be upheld and order maintained by other means. It very much does not say that it is better for the law to be peaceably broken than forcefully maintained.
The Peelian Principles remain a sound basis for British policing. But too often they are trotted out only in defence of ‘weak policing. In point of fact, a robust and pro-active approach to maintaining order and protecting public and private property is entirely consistent with Sir Robert’s vision.
It’s the alternative that isn’t. To defer to the judgement of rioters and vandals is to turn the idea of ‘policing by consent’ into a bad joke. Theirs is not the consent required.