Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Politicizing the police

by Bill Dixon

Voters in 41 police force areas outside London go to the polls tomorrow, Thursday 15th November, to elect police and crime commissioners (PCCs). It remains to be seen how many will take the trouble to venture out in mid-November to cast their votes for people they may well not have heard of standing for a position that few know very much about. Campaigning by candidates has been desultory and what we know about them and their plans for local policing is limited for most practical purposes to short statements on a Home Office-funded website.

Most of these statements have a dreary sameness about them with candidates eager to tap into public concerns about ‘anti-social behaviour’ by promising – swingeing cuts in police budgets notwithstanding - a more visible police presence on the streets. The more macho characters – it almost goes without saying that the overwhelming majority (157 out of 192 or 82%) are indeed men – throw in references to ‘zero tolerance’, while others promise to keep local police stations open, oppose privatization and cut red tape.

More interesting than any of this is the trouble that candidates have taken to distance themselves from politics and politicians. Independent candidates have been particularly keen to strike a pose as ordinary, everyday folk beholden to no-one but their constituents and themselves. Like so many pinnochios they are very, very proud to have no strings. But so too are some of the would-be commissioners with party political affiliations. They may have webbed feet, feathers and a tendency to quack; but ducks they definitely are not.

With the expenses saga still fresh in the minds of many voters – not to mention the odd politician preferring bush tucker in Queensland with Ant and Dec to trooping through the division lobbies at Westminster with David Cameron - it’s scarcely surprising that so many aspiring PCCs, proud of their local roots and anxious to connect with an increasingly cynical electorate, are keen to dissociate themselves from the dirty business of professional politics and the shady goings-on of out-of-touch metropolitan elites.

But keeping politics out of policing isn’t that simple. Even the words ‘politics’ and ‘police’ have a common ancestry and a history of entanglement in the business of government going back to one of the founding fathers of modern policing, the eighteenth century magistrate and writer, Patrick Colquhoun. Nor is contemporary policing the kind of consensual activity so many PCCs would have us believe it to be. As the eminent American theorist, Egon Bittner, observed many years ago, policing is about the use of non-negotiable coercive force. It is unavoidably adversarial. That force may be exercised by the police on our behalf. But we must never forget that it is used against our fellow citizens and may, one day, be used against us too. The good time being had by all after a family wedding may be nothing more than a horrible racket to the neighbours; our harmless fun their anti-social behaviour.

This capacity to use coercive force is a precious commodity. It is only right that those who use it for ‘us’ and against ‘them’ are called to account; whether we like it or not - and whether we like the people who do it or not - we live in a society where calling public servants to account for what they do is the stuff of democratic politics and elected politicians. And, whether they like it or not, the PCCs who emerge from these elections will be politicians. The sooner they accept that is what they are, stop posturing as men (and a few women) of the people, and get on with the demanding jobs they’ve been given the better.

No comments: