IT'S been a difficult time for the police. The decision by a Coroner’s Court jury that Mark Duggan had been lawfully killed drew strong criticism from Duggan’s family and friends. The subsequent row showed that we still have a big problem of deep mistrust of the police by large sections of Britain’s black community.
The use of powers to stop and search and the treatment of people held in police custody remain controversial issues now, as I remember them being when I was a parliamentary candidate in Brixton in the mid-1980s.
Then we saw a Metropolitan police officer plead guilty to having blatantly lied in order to bring down a Cabinet Minister, Andrew Mitchell. (I should declare an interest: I have known Mr Mitchell since university). Some people have said publicly that if the police could stitch up a senior Minister in this way, they could stitch up anyone.
But let’s take a step back from the immediate controversies. It’s only a couple of weeks since the BFP carried the story of the well-deserved tributes from civic and community leaders to Supt Gilbert Houalla on his service as police commander in Wycombe. And though public confidence in the police (as in pretty much every institution and profession), it still remains at a generally high level.
We as society ask the police to do an incredibly difficult job. They must be trained to deal with the most ruthless and violent criminals and with the vagrants, alcoholics and mentally ill people at the fringes of society.
We expect them to judge when to crack down hard on anti-social behaviour and when to show a bit of leeway and recognise that it’s nothing worse than youthful high spirits getting a bit out-of-hand. We need them to be determined and rigorous investigators and questioners while at the same time showing acute sensitivity and psychological understanding when interviewing the victims of crime.
In my 21 years in Parliament, I’ve worked with three Chief Constables in Thames Valley and many local commanders in Wycombe, Aylesbury and Amersham. When I was Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland, I got to know the police there well and count myself an admirer both of their heroism during the Troubles and their work on reconciliation now.
The police don’t get everything right and we do need to make sure that complaints against the police are investigated properly and impartially. But in my experience, it’s usually police officers themselves who are the most angry when one of their number is found to have behaved in a corrupt or bullying fashion.
When I talk to police officers, whether new PCs or senior commanders, I find men and women who joined the force because they wanted to make life better and safer for the communities in which they live and who are very aware that they are accountable under the law for how they use the powers that they hold. The police need to learn lessons from recent events. But my own dealings with officers both over individual constituency cases and wider criminal justice issues leads me to have confidence that that work will be done.