Time to Consider What We Want from Policing in 2020 and Beyond

Posted on 2nd January 2020


The unprecedented attack on the governments record in policing delivered by five ex-Metropolitan police chiefs in just the latest in a long line of calls for the government to fundamentally rethink its approach to policing (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/07/05/five-ex-heads-scotland-yard-call-public-inquiry-state-policing/). Following the 2018 conference of the National Association of Retired Police Officers (NARPO), 180 retired police officers started a petition calling for a royal commission to review policing in England and Wales (Moore, 2018). Alongside this, chief police officers are becoming increasingly vocal in their calls for fundamental changes to the demands made of the police with the Chair of the National Police Chiefs Council call for reform supported immediately by other chief officers and some police and crime commissioners (BBC, 2018; The Evening Standard, 2018; Hampshire PCC Blog post, 2018 November 2). In October 2018 Consulting firm Deloitte published a synthesis of their experiences of policing in the UK and identified that society has fundamentally changed and policing, in this instance the public police, needs to change to meet evolving social needs. Other countries seem to agree with Canada (Council of Canadian Academies, 2014) and Ireland (Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, 2018) undertaking fundamental reviews of policing rather than the tinkering around the edges of police reform (Vitale, 2017) that is often the result of calls for fundamental reform.

Arguably, the last fundamental review to consider the needs of society in determining how it was policed was in the 19th century when modern policing emerged out of demands for a more bureaucratically sophisticated, demilitarised and de-politicised police. It was argued, from different perspectives, that the modern police organisation would meet the expectations of a society experiencing simultaneous mass urbanisation, industrialisation, market liberalisation and political reform. The gradual loss of small communities who had themselves exerted social management through populist local structures, patriarchal militias, private police organisations and other localised ‘police’ bodies. The modern policing system in England and Wales matured throughout the next century with periodic reforms emerging in the second half of the twentieth century with the 1960 Royal Commission (Willink, 1960; Willink 1962), the 1978 Edmund-Davies's Review, the 1982 Scarman Report and the 1999 MacPherson Report. These reviews focused on the future of policing but through the lens of pay, conditions and governance and latterly concerns with structural bias and discrimination. These reviews and Royal Commissions were thus thematic rather than fundamental.

In the US, a more radical discourse has emerged that questions whether there is a need for a police at all. Vitale (2017) argues that policing no longer meets the needs of society in New York and that it is time to fundamentally review what society is, it’s governance and what society needs arguing in tandem that it is time to end the militarisation and politicisation of policing in New York and the wider US. In this way Vitale's critique of US policing reflects those of late 18th and early 19th century commentators (Fielding, 1757; Colquhoun, 1806) who argued that society was in transition and there was a need to re-imagine policing, which paved the way for the development of the Metropolitan Police, the establishment of the principles of policing by Robert Peel and codified by Rowan and Mayne (Lawson, 1988; Bush, 2005; Poole, 2006). It can be argued that the emergent industrialised modernism that surrounded the police reforms of 1829 and has survived for nearly 200 years requires re-visiting in a time where technology, government and society are radically re-shaping themselves. There is evidence of this reform discourse in England and Wales but, as the opening section acknowledges, it is often grounded in the self-interest of organisations, think tanks and political positioning. Thus, it does not explore the critical question of what policing, as opposed to a narrower definition of police, should look like in the future. Elsewhere, more ambitious questions are being asked that interrogate the relationship between police, government, society and other modes of regulation as they are shift and change under the pressures of new technologies and market demand. The question thus emerges, "What future for policing?"

There are examples of future casting for major and critical national and international issues. The Ministry of Defence (2014) undertake a strategic trend review periodically and the latest, looking forward to 2045, examines futures in social, technological and geographical terms along with the changing nature of state and governance. The purpose is to ensure that structures, technologies, capability and organisation are developed to meet that need. This strategic vision seeks to ensure that people, funding, policies and capabilities are fit for purpose into the future. In the same way as the military seeks to understand what the future of security and defence may look like based on what society, technology, state and threat vectors may be so, in the civil world, we need to understand not only the future but the present. Global societies are in transition both structurally and conceptually. Communities of interest are no longer co-located and communicating face to face; instead, they often communicate virtually, sometimes ethereally and occasionally incognito. Property crime occurs, as does crimes against the individual, in an increasingly electronic world as we move deeper into the age of ‘crime sans frontiers’. Telecommunications and written interactions can no longer be assumed to be with a human being somewhere nearby but may be with some artificial intelligence bot across the world.

In such a climate it is surely right for societies and their governments to stop asking how we pay for the police and how many police officers we can afford but what society or community is, what is meant by policing today and what modern society and communities need, want and expect today and into the near, medium and predictable long-term future. If we examine these things at a fundamental and philosophical level, how policing is delivered will be driven once again by the needs of society and may lead to a very different discussion and model than that which emerged in the 1820’s and 1830’s.

It is time to review the conceptual and theoretical assumptions that underpin thinking about policing and ask whether there is a sufficiently common philosophical and conceptual understanding of policing to its development, rather than just a common understanding of police functions. This is profoundly important when considering different conceptual understandings of policing and how that is applied in support of the reform of policing in transitional states. It is now time for a concerted effort to conceptualise a philosophical understanding of policing and its relationship to social development and then to reform policing in the UK to meet the needs of today’s society. What does seem clear is that the depoliticization of policing is a good place to return to.

For a complete version of this article please see http://redfame.com/journal/index.php/ijlpa/issue/view/196

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