Rule of Targets
British police allegedly act under a philosophy of policing by consent (‘the police are the public and the public are the police’, as the saying goes), which encompasses a number of principles set out in General Instructions given to new officers from 1829 onwards.
In so many ways contemporary policing makes a mockery of these standards, and November’s confirmation of long-denied target setting for arrests fits the developing picture of an institution which operates on principles far removed from the public image it presents (one that the Met has spent millions of tax-payers’ money trying to convince us of, brilliantly highlighted by a recent poster campaign).
Today’s police are not the public. They increasingly demonstrate a disdain for the people they claim to represent and protect. So often, public order and political agenda trump genuine public concern, and some of society’s worst qualities (racism, bullying, laziness, corruption) seem to find expression in this arm of the state apparatus (which is of particular concern given their apparent ability to act with impunity, and when considering the increasing number of toys at their disposal).
Not only do arrest targets show flagrant disregard for the alleged values our police forces should operate under, and of the system we live within (the current state of British democracy is a whole other debate!), but they allow systems of oppression – such as racism – to perpetuate. In considering rule of law as an essential backbone to a system of governance which is fair, which respects due process, and which should be firmly at the heart of any democratic state, we can refer back to the General Instructions, which direct the police ‘to seek and preserve public favour … by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and … by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing’.
Setting arrest targets, particularly talk of ‘easy wins’, places statistics over rule of law – and for what? So individual officers can impress their superiors? So police forces can make their case to be treated gently in the next round of cuts? So those in government can make pleas for votes through cooking the books on crime figures?
These are people’s lives. We are not pawns in political games; we are not numbers on spreadsheets. This practices shows no regard for the stress of arrest and detainment, and no concern for how criminalisation impacts on the lives of ordinary people. We cease to be people; we become tools for other people’s goals.
Searching for Arrests
In 2007 it was reported that police were setting arrest targets: 3 ‘sanction detections’ every fifteen weeks. Officers stated that under these conditions easy arrests, rather than arrests/tasks with greater merit, naturally became preferred. At the time, a Police Federation spokesperson said, ‘Understandably, when the public hears about this they ask ‘What the hell is going on?’’ Well, indeed.
In considering what this means in practice: stop and search powers are regularly employed as one of these ‘easy wins’ – and these powers are enacted in a far from merit-based manner. Black people in London are currently 12 times more likely than whites to get stopped under Section 60 – which removes the need for ‘reasonable suspicion’ (23 times more likely nationally in 2012). This despite the fact that drug use tends to be lower in non-white groups. (Actually, not only are black people more likely to get stopped, but in 2013 a study also found black people were subsequently more likely to get charged.) Incidents of stop and search under Section 60 fell 89% from 2011/12 – 2012/13 – this huge drop begs the question: if such a large reduction was feasible in such a short period why were they searching so many people in the first place? Easy wins. Easy wins that unnecessarily and unfairly target specific sections of our society.
‘The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has no policy of setting individual targets for stop and search or for arrests.’ This 2014 public denial by the Met was reiterated internally by then Assistant Commissioner, Simon Byrne. However, an email from the previous year a Met chief inspector announced monthly ‘minimum expectations’ for officers. James Patrick, Met whistle-blower, spells out why the Met was always going to deny these allegations: because evidence collected demonstrates the involvement of senior members of the force. This is no rogue unit – this is a strategic policy.
In defence of this policy (although seemingly he also denies this policy exists), Byrne states that there are no targets for bravery, of putting oneself in harm’s way. While, of course it would be all the more shocking if police were expected to put themselves in a minimum number of life-threatening situations each month, Byrne misses the point – that attention is not paid to quality policing, to actions that may actually defend those in need and support some ‘greater good’, but instead to pointless targets, to ticks on spreadsheets. And, while stop and searches may have reduced as a result of intense scrutiny and pressure, unnecessary arrests will continue in some form as long as this target culture operates.
This drive for officers to make needless arrests to meet arbitrary quotas is something retired (/reformed) Met police officer, Chris Hobbs, has raised concerns over for the very reason that it distracts from anything of meaning. A 2014 Metropolitan Police Federation report also notes that target culture can lead to fiddling the stats. Is this all the more likely when we are seeing huge cuts to police funding, as different forces compete to prove their necessity to the ‘public good’? When we see this in the light of developments, such as the rise of private prisons, the whole thing takes an even shadier turn. Last year’s conviction of an American judge for conspiring with private prisons to give young offenders maximum sentences for a kickback – while obviously an extreme case – demonstrates how wrong things can go when private business concerns become embroiled with public functions.
Time for Change, Time for Consent
And, during this period of revelation, we hear from the bullies that they are being bullied. Officers report being forced into making arrests, such as the arrest of a man in possession of egg with ‘intent to throw’, and of a child for throwing a piece of cucumber at another child.
And we are expected to sympathise. If you are not happy with the way the institution you work within operates, blow the whistle, resist, force change – you know, all the things those people you’re always arresting at protests are trying to do. If you’d stop arresting them for a minute and think about what they’re doing, maybe you could be a positive influence in an institution that has amassed too much power, is desperately lacking in transparency and accountability, and which no longer commands the consent of huge swathes of the public it claims to be part of. Looking back to the General Instructions, ‘the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect’. You need our approval, and we do not consent.
In 2013 Theresa May spoke out about the creeping return of target culture within the police (in 2010 she had called for the practice to be abolished as a method for measuring performance). Yet, it appears that it never went away, that it is more ferocious than ever, and is being denied/excused at the senior level – demonstrating that senior officers fail to see the problem with this, or indeed, are in favour of a target-led approach. The Metropolitan Police Federation’s report into target culture said this was ‘devastating’ picture of the police, and that arrest targets were draconian and meaningless. Yet, in response to the report, a spokesperson for the Met stated that they would not apologise for valuing performance, and that ‘the public expects no less’.
They’re right; we expect so much more. We expect that individuals entrusted with a monopoly on force to use that power (which is essentially the power over other people’s lives) only when necessary, and only in occasions where it is of benefit. We are encouraged to believe that we need the police, but is this really true? Can we not think of any alternatives? Such as those which would truly engage the communities they are meant to support, and which would therefore be bound by far stronger accountability mechanisms, and would be anchored within public control.
Recently, the NYPD essentially decided to stop working, and on New Year’s Eve over 80% of Rome’s police force called in sick – and yet society survived. Now is the time to think seriously about what we have and what we want – and the huge chasm that currently exists in between.