Another chapter in Plebgate and this has been yet another bad week at the office for the police service in England and Wales. It comes on top of quite a few others - Hillsborough, scandals about the use of undercover, the dismissal of Chief Officers in Cleveland and a long list of domestic violence deaths where police have been at fault. The latest events have prompted calls for a Royal Commission, but this time from a senior politician rather than just from within the police service. Better late than never. It was clear to me, when reviewing Police Leadership and training 2 years ago, that a wider Commission was essential.
However, the focus of David Davis' proposed Commission - police ethics - and his immediate solution - officers should be equipped with personal body-worn cameras - would not get to many of the most difficult issues confronting public policing and its relationship with the public. If we do issue officers with cameras it may well produce some positive effects on assaults on police and on police behaviour (an experiment in Rialto in the USA suggests this), but the film would also show a more troubling truth.
The real work of policing day to day is not, as some politicians would have it, one focused on "fighting crime", but increasingly one of picking up the pieces of our society that no one else wants to deal with: coping with the mentally ill who are perceived as a risk; disputes and anti-social behaviour, much of which is complex and intractable; domestic and family violence. Few of these issues show accurately in the crime figures that are in any case a poor reflection of real crime and getting worse as cybercrime, which is largely unreported forms a larger portion (probably as much as 30%) of the public's experience of crime.
The Coalition's "reforms" have done little to tackle the root problems of public policing. Underpinned by a narrow crime-fighting rhetoric, unprecedented cuts to budgets that are a long way from being complete have eaten into the capacity of the police to solve problems and forced a return to a more reactive service. The jury is out on Police and Crime Commissioners, but after the botched election, there is very limited sign of any public enthusiasm for a model that was supposed to drive up public confidence. As the launch of the police code of ethics demonstrated, Ministers are increasingly turning to the infant National College of Policing as the solution to their problems. The College is a crucial change, but it will not succeed on its own with wider reform.
The Independent Commission on Policing may not be a Royal Commission, but we have had the merits of a strong, international, cross party group of commissioners and time for research and reflection over two years. Yvette Cooper made the right call in setting it up and insisting on independent thinking. With the benefit of that thinking, it would be a huge missed opportunity for a Royal Commission to focus only on police ethics because of the immediate scandal. There are much more fundamental questions about the role and purpose of the public police, their governance and regulation, professionalisation and standards, structure and people that demand attention. The Commission's report will be published this month and will force those more fundamental questions into the open. The subsequent debate needs to lead to real reforms not just another coat of varnish, a few more staff to the IPCC and the constant, empty repetition of the mantra that "we have the best police service in the world".