Do We Need the Police?

David Canter asks if ‘all-purpose’ police forces are no longer fit for purpose

Group photo of 25 British constables in uniform from 1890
(Photo: East Riding Archives, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most well-known police force in the world, referred to as Scotland Yard, has just received a damning indictment from a major government enquiry. Described as institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic, allowing police officers to go unchallenged when committing sexual offences and domestic violence. This enquiry was launched when Police Constable Wayne Couzens murdered Sarah Everard, having used his position as a policeman to control the victim, handcuffing her by claiming she had breached covid restrictions. 

Scotland Yard is actually the address of the headquarters of the vast London Metropolitan Police (The Met) currently employing more than 30,000 police officers. It serves more than 10 percent of the British population, with Scotland Yard itself being close to the Prime Minster’s office in Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament. This all makes it of major significance in the political life of the United Kingdom, beyond its importance in dealing with law and order.

But the problems of policing a not limited to such a major police force. Compared with the U.K.’s 40 or so law enforcement agencies, the U.S., with a population around five times that of the U.K., has around 18,000. This does mean that although the New York Police Department has a similar number of police to The Met in London, on average U.S. law enforcement agencies employ around 50 people. What skills are available to such a limited resource? The many cases of abuse by police officers across the U.S. brought recently to worldwide attention by the killing of George Floyd, and subsequent, similar horrors, shows that the training and management of the police in the U.S. is not fit for purpose. The fact that U.S. police carry firearms means that their lack of professional standards is much more fatal than in the usually unarmed U.K. Apparently, one in 20 fatal shootings in the U.S. are carried out by law enforcement officers.

All of this raises profound questions of what the police are for, and how they are organized.

Some years ago, when I was following up a murder enquiry, I was surprised to discover that the senior investigating officer who had managed that murder investigation was not available. He was in charge of public order policing at the Notting Hill Carnival. It struck me that very different knowledge and skills were required for these two remarkably dissimilar roles. Yet the assumption that senior police officers can be expected to turn their hand to any of those very different areas that the police look after goes unchallenged. Do we still require one monolithic police force? Do we need The Police? Or is the range of activities in which they are involved now so varied, each area requiring such specialist knowledge, that the whole organisation and basis for our police services should be reviewed?

Perhaps we should be looking for much more highly trained, much more specialist units, than one monolithic Police Force? In the age before universal car ownership, DNA and CCTV, social networking, hundreds of mother tongues spoken in the homes of our cities, rapid developments in computing capabilities, huge databases available for examination at the click of a mouse and facial recognition software, it may have made sense to assume that being a policeman was a general purpose task, and that training in police procedures and the relevant law was all that was needed to join the thin blue line. But every aspect of policing now has become a sophisticated speciality. Indeed, Google and insurance companies now have more highly developed information on people, and ways of using it, than many police forces. Perhaps it is no longer possible for police officers to pick up a few technical details and understand what they are part of without a specialist intellectual basis on which to build their actions?

I suggest that the generalist approach to being a member of the police force, working your way up from being a lowly constable, without any academic training, moving through a variety of roles, is one of the main reasons for the turmoil the police are in now. In the U.K. this is being recognized by some universities starting to provide undergraduate degrees in policing studies.

Putting so many issues together it is clear that the police face a very wide gamut of challenges that may not be open to a little tinkering. For example, the British Crown Prosecution Service complained that rape cases are not being linked effectively, so serial rapists go free. But the developments currently possible from information technology and behavioral science that would improve detectives’ effectiveness are not part of the police response. I worked with the Met, at great expense to the taxpayer, and with other police forces, to develop a computer system that their own analyses proved could improve detection rates at no extra cost. But this system still languishes on a desk somewhere because there is not the long-term, strategic vision to set in motion its operation.

The current public distrust in policing, on both sides of the Atlantic, can only be dealt with by creating a much more professional way of carrying out law enforcement. These days soldiers tend to be specialists with focused training on particular skills. It is surely time to take this on board for the war against crime.

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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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