Two issues have come to prominence concerning the police this week. The first is the question of whether senior officers should be employed directly into the higher ranks of the service without serving a mandatory two-year period of basic training. The second concerns the question of employing officers who do not have British nationality.
The argument trotted out by the supporters of the British model is that the British police are unique in the world because of its origin in British history, that they exist because of the 'will of the people', that they are the 'best in the world', that this is shown by the affection that the people have for them and that this is seen in the absence of weapons. Oh, and I missed out that that the police officer is not subject to the direction of another person, that he or she is 'operationally independent.' All of this stands in contrast (according to the argument) to the continental developments of centralised and para-militarised policing in other countries. Any changes to this model are thought to be an affront to every police officer in the country.
The usual culprits emerge at moments like this. The Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), The Police Superintendants Association of England and Wales (PSAEW) and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) all take the view that this would mean that operational policing would be littered with poorly trained, 'wet around the ears', university graduates who knew nothing about policing. At the moment, all police officers in England and Wales have to complete two years training before eligibility to apply for promotion. So, would it matter if they hadn't done this? Well, the devil may well be in the detail. Some activities carried out by Superintendents and Inspectors clearly require intense knowledge of operational policing. Public order, major inquiries, major incidents and the like are examples. Other roles are a bit more generalised and less immediate. We need to know what kinds of roles are being thought of as suitable for candidates from outside the service. That's not clear yet. What is clear is that any police officer who is not sufficiently competent in the roles they undertake should not be allowed to remain in their job.
The police currently employ people as 'police staff' from a range of professional backgrounds who are intimately involved in policing matters. The police also employ PCSOs who, even more, straddle the boundary between police officer and civilian. They have been relatively successful. So, why shouldn't they employ people from other occupations and benefit from their experience. The question should be, are they suitable for the role? It's not beyond the wit of the police to design job specifications that facilitate this is it? It is possible that this may lead to the breaking down of some of the cultural barriers that have been created between the police and the public in Britain.
The question about employing those without British nationality similarly goes to the heart of the debate about our police. Police officers can be employed now without being a British national, so long as they have lived here for three years and have leave to remain in this country. Some are very valuable and good officers. It is an anomaly (possibly challengeable in law) that only the very senior officers are required to be British citizens. Why can't all officers be subject to the same recruitment requirements?
So, why would any of these suggested changes stop the British police being the 'best in the world'? Well, don't believe the hype. The British police are certainly good by comparison with some countries but that begs the question of what we mean by 'good'. Police in many other countries are probably just as good if not better but no league table exists of police forces around the world. Moreover, the police may well benefit from the changes suggested and become even better.
What should be exercising us about the police at the moment is the creation of another tier of governance, the Police and Crime Commissioner. Furthermore, police forces are engaged in restructuring, down-sizing, collaborating and privatising wherever you look. What kind of police will we end up having at the end of this government's term of office? They don't know and neither do we.