For a significant number of Britons, especially the young, the lack of fair and respectful treatment by the police can colour their outlook on the legitimacy of the police, and the justice system, to provide law and order. Experiences of contact with the police, whether through stop and search, arrest or witnessing the police control a demonstration, play a very significant role in shaping people’s attitude to the legitimacy of the police.

Fairness in Policing

Posted on 22 May in

Phil Bowen

As a half breed, part British, part American, I witnessed the riots in Baltimore with a similar shudder as I remember feeling watching the riots in Tottenham in 2011. The causes of both disturbances are, of course, various and particular but perhaps the most troubling cause was common: a breakdown in the consent of those communities to be patrolled by their police forces. On Monday, President Obama’s taskforce on policing published its report. There have been eye catching recommendations which, to our British ears, seem to be self-evidently obvious: the use of military equipment by the police at demonstrations.

However, just because our police don’t tool up like it is downtown Fallujah, we shouldn’t be complacent: while a significant majority of the British public still trust the police to tell the truth, those numbers have fallen of late. Research conducted just after the riots in 2011 showed that “Britons are less likely than those in Scandinavian countries, Germany and Switzerland to report trust in the police and to rate police legitimacy highly.” And there are many communities in this country who differ from the mean. We can and must not think because we are not the same as parts of America,that similar issues of trust in the police don’t apply.

For a significant number of Britons, especially the young, the lack of fair and respectful treatment by the police can colour their outlook on the legitimacy of the police, and the justice system, to provide law and order. Experiences of contact with the police, whether through stop and search, arrest or witnessing the police control a demonstration, play a very significant role in shaping people’s attitude to the legitimacy of the police.  And where policing lacks legitimacy, we need to understand that this has a knock on effect: those who regard the police as lacking in legitimacy also express less consent to the rule of law, less willingness to co-operate with the justice system and they are therefore more likely to break the law.

Given that the research evidence is so strong, the obvious question is what to do about it. The taskforce report offers some clues. Its first recommendation is that the police “should adopt procedural justice as the guiding principle for internal and external policies and practices to guide their interactions with the citizens they serve.” It makes recommendations about ensuring that crime fighting strategies are thought through from the perspective of confidence and trust and, perhaps most difficultly, that the police need to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

In June, one of the report’s authors, Professor Tracey Meares, will be here in London to talk to us at the Centre about what we can learn. It is unclear whether those recommendations can and will prevent future Baltimores nor whether those recommendations apply, and can apply, to our own British policing culture, which at its heart has always rested on the principle of consent.  We may be already on a more positive track, for example, there have already been bold steps by the Home Secretary to reassess the use of stop and search. But it certainly seems clear that President Obama’s invocation applies here as much as it applies in the US— “When any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated fairly, that’s a problem for all of us. It’s not just a problem for some. It’s not just a problem for a particular community or a particular demographic. It means that we are not as strong as a country as we can be. And when applied to the criminal justice system, it means we’re not as effective in fighting crime as we could be.”

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