Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Who’s driving roads policing?

By Helen Wells, Lecturer in Criminology

Towards the end of last week, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Norfolk, Stephen Bett drew critical attention for suggesting that, in some circumstances, speed limits in his county should be abolished and (skilled) drivers be allowed to “go flat out”. The Chief Constable of Norfolk constabulary, Phil Gormley, does not appear to have commented on the statement but it is reasonable to assume that, as former ACPO lead on roads policing, he would not approve. The week before, both PCC and CC had been more in tune when commenting on the case of the Norfolk WPC who was claiming damages against a theft victim who she had been injured whilst assisting. Why, then, should the issue of speeding, within the context of roads policing more generally, be the source of disagreement between two figureheads of the new accountability structure operating in British policing?

Roads policing has been described as “the public face of the police for many citizens” (Corbett, 2008) and is the most likely unsolicited encounter between a police officer and a member of the public. As a specialised policing area it has undergone significant retrenchment and change in recent years, and its relationship with the general public is complex. Since the first days of motor car use, the police have been accused of unfairly targeting the ‘law-abiding’ and ‘the respectable’ who are more used to encountering the police as a service (summoned when required) than they are as potential targets for enforcement action. Roads policing has always thrust the police into potentially negative encounters with people who, for whatever reason, do not feel that they are the proper target of police activity.

So how does this relate to the issue of Mr Bett and his comments about the (non-) enforcement of road traffic law? The specific issue of speeding is a vexed one, and I have written at length about it elsewhere, but what does the fact that one of the characters in this story is a relatively newly elected PCC tell us about police accountability, decision making and priority-setting in these new times?

Elected Police and Crime Commissioners will be increasingly concerned with policing that reflects what they see as public priorities, and the vast majority did not campaign around, or even mention, roads policing in their campaigns. Of a total of 1900 priority issues raised by prospective PCCs in their election material, only 18 references were made to roads policing. Five of these were ambiguously noted in the research as being references to speed cameras (it is not possible to establish whether these were ‘for’ or ‘against’), while two were openly opposed to the ‘persecution of the motorist’.

Unlike issues such as community engagement (1908 mentions), addressing the needs of victims (115 mentions) or ‘keeping bobbies on the beat’ (113 mentions), roads policing has a somewhat ambiguous status with the general public that are at once its target for enforcement, the victims it is trying to protect and, in Mr Bett’s case, the electorate. Unlike the ‘real crime’ issues mentioned frequently by PCC candidates, where there is little question of public support for action against these ‘real’ criminals, Mr Bett may have been reflecting the ambiguous position of the general public in relation to road traffic laws when making his comments. He is unlikely to have been thinking about the views of burglars when making his statement, but he may well have been thinking as both a driver himself and as a representative of drivers with votes.

It remains to be seen how prominently roads policing will feature in the Police and Crime Plans that are emerging nationally, but, meanwhile, Chief Constables remain responsible for addressing recent increases in road death and injury despite shrinking budgets and reduced officer numbers. Hence roads policing is facing both de-prioritisation and re-politicisation, and incidents like that involving Stephen Bett may be symptomatic of the problems of reconciling an (at times) unpopular policing necessity with democratic accountability, in a context where that general public is (uniquely) constructed as, at once, potential offender, potential victim and potential voter.

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