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The Fog of Transition in U.K. Policing: Major Changes Abound

By Sir Hugh Orde, President, Association of Chief Police Officers; and Chief Constable (Retired), Police Service of Northern Ireland

he British police service is currently going through the most significant transformative change since its creation during the reign of King George IV. Since the formation of a coalition government between the conservative and liberal democrat parties (a first since World War II), the need to cut back on state spending while bringing forward substantial reforms to many public institutions has dominated the policing agenda. This background of significantly reduced public spending and austerity measures is accompanied by a drive for small government, local accountability, and an increased role for citizens popularly characterized as “the big society” by the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The changes also are framed by a decade of falling crime and increased public trust and satisfaction in the police. This is a record of which the U.K. police service should be proud. The service has embraced the challenges of reform and change, and I am glad to have been part of an excellent team of police leaders moving policing forward.

Yet change is upon us, and the practical implications of these changes represent a seismic shift to the foundations of the U.K. police model. Ahead lay many opportunities but also potential pitfalls. Pay and conditions are being reviewed in a wholesale fashion by Tom Winsor, a commercial lawyer and the home secretary’s preferred candidate for the role of chief inspector of the constabulary. The police service also is about to see the creation of some new national policing bodies and the disbandment of others. There will be the introduction of directly elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) who, in a new accountability model said to be inspired by U.S. policing experience, will work with police chief constables to set budgets and direct strategy. All of this will be framed by a 20 percent reduction of central government funding for the police service, not to mention London’s hosting of the Olympic Games. This is a challenging package, to be sure.

Perhaps the most radical plans are the government’s reforms of police governance. As of November 2012, we will see the first elections of PCCs across 41 of the 44 police forces in England and Wales. The three exceptions are the Metropolitan Police Service, which already answers to the Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime; my old force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland; and the City of London Police, which monitors the square mile of London’s financial district and, uniquely, is accountable through the Corporation of London. In all other forces, existing police authorities will go and an individual PCC will be directly elected by the public, on a local mandate, with the power to hire and fire chief constables.

The current model involves an appointed board of individuals made up of councilors (local party politicians) and appointed independent members from the community. A key difference is that under the new model, power will lie in the hands of an individual who, in most cases it can reasonably be anticipated, will run on a party political ticket. This single point of contact in the form of a PCC will, it is argued, improve local accountability between the public and the police.

Policing in the British tradition has always embraced local accountability—we police the public by and through their consent, not by force. This consent can truly be achieved only with an effective system of accountability. The government clearly recognizes this, and it is fully entitled to take such measures as it considers appropriate to ensure such a system is in place. That said, I remain concerned with the general lack of appreciation of just how significant the introduction of PCCs is likely to be.

The architects of the British policing model were Sir Robert Peel, a former prime minister and home secretary; and Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne, the first commissioners of the Metropolitan police. Peel established the Metropolitan Police Service for London in 1829; this is largely recognized as the founding moment of modern British policing and the first bobbies. Rowan and Mayne are understood to have developed Peel’s conception on the basis of a set of nine principles that describe the mission statement and the duties of a police officer in the British model.1

Among the best known of these principles is the edict that the test of police efficiency should be the absence of crime, not the visible presence of police officers in dealing with it. Equally critical are tenets that the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions and that police should seek and preserve public favor—not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.

Blurring the dividing lines between political and policing roles has not always ended well in Britain. One such historical incident came when Peel’s successor as home secretary, Lord Melbourne, ordered the police to suppress a public demonstration at Cold Bath Fields in Clerkenwell, London, in 1833, against the advice of commissioners Rowan and Mayne. In the ensuing violence, Police Constable Robert Culley was stabbed to death by a group of protestors who later were charged with his murder. But a jury found this to be justifiable homicide on the grounds that the public meeting had not been officially declared illegal. When Lord Melbourne blamed the police, telling Parliament he had never ordered the dispersal of the crowd, Commissioner Mayne was able to disprove him by producing his own notes recording the order. Although this is an extreme example, clashes between politics and policing such as this one are seminal in establishing the reputation for impartiality and fairness that British policing enjoys.2

Rowan and Mayne’s principles gave rise to the notion of operational independence, developed over time through a royal commission on policing in 1962 and finding its most famous form in a legal judgment from perhaps the United Kingdom’s greatest lawmaking judge of the last century, Lord Denning, in 1968. In the case of Blackburn, referring to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service but extending to encompass all chief constables, Denning stated that “No Minister of the Crown can tell him that he must, or must not, keep observation on this place or that; or that he must, or must not, prosecute this man or that one. Nor can any police authority tell him so. The responsibility for law enforcement lies on him. He is answerable to the law and to the law alone.”3

Policing is inherently political territory given the influence it has on people’s lives and the unique powers the police service has been entrusted with on behalf of the citizens it must keep safe. Governments are often weighed and measured by their records on crime, and it is right that they in turn ensure the police are held to account. Yet the British policing model developed as it did to set clear boundaries between political influence and policing decisions, certainly at an operational level. Impartial service of the law must remain above the day-to-day of politicking and newspaper headlines. I have emphasized this at every step and have been clear in my dialogue with government.

There are few places where the interface between policing and politics is more keenly contested than in my former place of employment: Northern Ireland. Policing was an issue of intense political significance, and the Northern Ireland Policing Board to which I was accountable demanded a highly visible and comprehensive form of scrutiny. To take a specific example, I decided to introduce an electronic control device for use by specially trained and authorized firearms officers in 2008. This decision was debated and opposed by many politicians on the policing board over a period of years, during which we consulted carefully on deployment and took account of every view in shaping the way in which we tried to meet community concerns. But I was absolutely clear: I was responsible for the policing we delivered to the community and the safety of my officers, and therefore the operational decision was mine.

Over the seven years I was chief constable in Northern Ireland, I held a basic principle, and none of the politicians who in that time held the office of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland disagreed with it. It was simply that I will do the policing and be held to account for it. We have to make professional judgments about the situations we face and, of course, be held to account for those judgments.

With the introduction of PCCs, we need to understand what happens in this new system when, for operational reasons, a chief constable is unable to meet a political priority, such as doubling the number of police officers on the street. By definition in this scenario, officers would need to be moved from somewhere else, be that child protection, major crime, or antiterrorism—areas that are at the top of the government’s agenda around the security of the state yet are largely invisible in their impact on the day-to-day communities.

Police leaders through the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) have worked hard alongside the government to identify ways of meeting these concerns through appropriate checks and balances to preserve the impartiality of policing. We now have both a policing protocol to define the roles and responsibilities of the chief constable and the PCC, and the government has restated the primacy of operational independence. The Strategic Policing Requirement (SPR) is focused on the important issues at the national level and requires both chiefs and PCCs to pay due regard to them in setting the policing priorities.4

Of course, there are potential tensions in the relationship; clear, regular, and sensible communication will be key to making it work. It is a reasonable expectation that in the majority of cases, sensible conversations will resolve points of difference between a chief constable and PCC. But in reality, we will know the answer to these questions only with the benefit of the experience. This is why I believe the current reforms can be said to mark the biggest changes to our policing model since 1829.

In my view, both police leaders and the government need to have honest conversations now about the rhetoric that is used in anticipation of the elections. Headline grabbing as some statements may be, are they really what the public—and the service—want or need? Policing is, without question, a complex business. At its core, it is concerned with local matters and the reassuring presence of the bobby on the beat. However, there is a paradox between the government’s desire to push power down to the local level and the growing recognition that with 44 separate and independent forces policing a population of more than 60 million, central coordination is absolutely critical. National and supranational threats such as terrorism; organized crime; and other, invisible, 21st-century threats are policed by the same 44 forces. It will be vital to ensure that the service collectively has the national commitment, the coherence, and the resources available to combat these threats.

This is an issue highlighted sharply by the 2011 rioting that saw London, among other parts of the United Kingdom, rely on the assistance of other forces to quell significant disturbances. Such assistance is enabled by national agreements, reached through ACPO, on the same training, equipment, and tactics, which together deliver interoperability between forces.

Without a strong, coordinated national policing effort, we could not hope to effectively deal with such problems in the future. I am pleased that the government is taking these considerations seriously with the creation and the review of the SPR, which aims to set out the capability and the capacity required to meet national threats. The direction of travel is correct, but substantial work still needs to be done to ensure this effort is both sufficiently specific and carries the necessary force to be effective. The test needed to keep in mind is a scenario when the government’s crisis management committee, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room, meets to discuss a particular policing response. To support the home secretary, police leaders will want to be able to provide the government with a firm answer to the question of what national policing resources are available. The role of the ACPO is absolutely critical in that regard.

The challenge in these reforms, then, is to make them work without unpicking the rest of our tradition: policing impartiality, subject to rule of law, and operational independence of chief constables. We continue to work hard with the government to ensure they are fully aware of the issues from the professional and the operational perspectives to ensure that we continue to provide safety and security to the public.

Of course, the policing reform agenda extends beyond governance. As part of a drive to reshape and declutter the policing landscape, 2012 will see the phasing out of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA). Meanwhile a new national body, the National Crime Agency, should take shape to coordinate the fight against organized crime, and a professional body for policing could come into being, taking on some of the NPIA’s functions alongside work currently delivered through the ACPO.5

The NPIA is a policing body that houses vital nonoperational functions for the service such as the national radio system and the national computer and DNA databases, while also maintaining responsibility for training standards. There is no question that these all are elements that are more efficiently and effectively delivered for the service once rather than in 44 different ways by individual forces.

The simple fact is that the services provided by the NPIA have to go somewhere; they cannot just stop. There remains work to be done to find appropriate ways to deliver these essential functions in the new world.

One of the most promising potential developments in the new landscape is the proposal to create a new, professional body for policing. A recent government announcement described a commitment to establish such a body that will “oversee training and standards, ensure officers of all ranks are equipped to meet the complex challenges of policing today and prepare the next generation of police leaders.”6 Modern policing is increasingly difficult, demanding, and delivered by a workforce of police officers and staff with huge commitment and professionalism. To recognize this expertise through a new body is a significant opportunity that could both help fight crime and improve our service to the public.

However, there remain significant questions to be asked about the makeup of a police professional body. These questions include how to fund and how to design and govern an organization that is fully inclusive of officers of all ranks and the police staff in professional roles alongside them. A crucial relationship will be between the professional body that creates the policing practice and the ACPO, which then must take the operational decision to implement or reject that practice.

The current Chief Constables’ Council that sits within ACPO is a unique model that, though imperfect, has delivered national agreements on interoperability, counterterrorism, firearms training, and numerous other aspects of police work. It provides a national voice for the police service and a single point of contact for both the public and the government to hold the service to account at a national level.

My sense currently is that these roles point to an operationally focused ACPO, based around the Chief Constables’ Council, which is entirely independent of the police professional body while maintaining a close relationship to it. We now must work through how to practically delineate the role of a national standards training and accreditation body, with a professional view on policing, from the operational need for a national decision-making body and voice for police leadership on operational policing matters.

For any policing institution to have legitimacy and authority with the public, it must first have the buy-in of the police service as a whole. Second, it will require a solid legal and constitutional governance framework to deliver services effectively for the public given the dynamics of policing. We face a constrained legislative timetable to get this right.

The other part of the U.K. jigsaw is the new National Crime Agency (NCA) that, though currently a work in progress, will have a specific roll to play in fighting crime on a national level. The creation of the agency makes absolute sense; it will be charged with working alongside police forces in tackling those largely unseen but major threats mentioned earlier (international terrorism, organized crime, and cybercrime) in a model that is compared with and perhaps inspired by the FBI in the United States.

The agency now has a head in place, Chief Constable Keith Bristow. In his new role as director general of the NCA, he faces the considerable challenge of building an organization that knits capability and intelligence on organized crime, border policing, economic crime, and child exploitation within existing budgets. Working in close partnership with police forces will be a critical factor in the NCA’s success when the legislation brings the new body into formal operation, which is expected later this year.

The next 12 months present a high-paced conveyor belt of change for U.K. policing in an Olympic year, and there are more changes on the horizon beyond that. Once the PCCs are in place, the NCA has found its form, and the professional body is taking shape, there will be broader and more theoretical questions for the way in which our police service is structured. The first part of a government-commissioned review of police terms and conditions has reached a recent conclusion; we now face the second. It will take a look at police training, contracts, and recruitment structures, and the ensuing debates will drive down to the core questions on what we want our police service to do and look like in the future.

Chief constables, as leaders of the service, need to make sure law enforcement articulates its concerns and facilitates change to ensure that any and all reforms provide the best delivery possible for the British public. As I have laid out, U.K. policing faces not purely an evolution but a fundamental revolution. It is both an exciting time and a tense time, and the day-to-day challenges of policing a nation will keep coming. Crime will not take a back seat and sit idly by while the government and the service determine the road ahead.

I have no doubt that one of the finest police services in the world will face the coming challenges head on and with commitment, professionalism, and enthusiasm. There will be many lessons to learn in the coming months, and they will have to be learnt quickly. It will be a fascinating time for those with an interest in policing and keeping the public safe. I look forward to keeping our colleagues from around the world informed on our progress. It is the unenviable task of chief constables to balance budgets and implement reforms while preparing for the future and for the unforeseen. What I can guarantee is that we will continue to protect the public to the best of our ability, with whatever resources are at our disposal. This is our job. ♦


1“Metropolitan Police 175 Years Ago,” History of the Metropolitan Police, 2012, (accessed June 12, 2012).
2“Historical Archives,” History of the Metropolitan Police, 2012, (accessed June 12, 2012).
3The Office of the Constable: The Bedrock of Modern Day British Policing (Surrey, England, United Kingdom: Police Federation of England and Wales, May 2008), 3, (accessed June 12, 2012).
4Home Office, Shadow Strategic Policing Requirement (London: Home Office, November 2011), (accessed June 12, 2012).
5Home Office, “Home Secretary Outlines Plans for New Police Professional Body,” press release, December 15, 2011, (accessed June 12, 2012); “National Crime Agency,” Home Office, (accessed June 12, 2012).
6Andrew Hough, “Police to Get New Body to Oversee Standards,” Telegraph, Law and Order, October 24, 2011, quoting Police Minister Nick Herbet, (accessed June 12, 2012).

Please cite as:

Sir Hugh Orde, "The Fog of Transition in U.K. Policing: Major Changes Abound," The Police Chief 79 (August 2012): 72–76.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 8, August 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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