Ethical policing in the UK: Problems of Maintaining Public Trust and Respect

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Ethical policing in the UK faces complex and unpredictable challenges from numerous sources. Sir Robert Peel’s nine Principles of Policing (1829), collectively referred to as policing with consent, suggest that for the police to operate efficiently as an organisation the public must approve of their existence and provide their co-operation, and that the police are there to facilitate the judicial process, rather than usurp it. For this to happen the police must operate in such a way that gains and maintains public trust and respect without compromising impartiality. (Home Office Publications, Policing by Consent, 2012). The principle upon which modern policing is based is that:

This approaches crime preventatively rather than treat it punitively. The extent to which the public co-operate therefore reduces the force required by the police. With this in mind, this essay will explore a number of current challenges, namely the fluctuating nature of crime and the impact of political and socioeconomic factors.

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A constant challenge faced by the police force today is the changing nature of crime. An example of this is the growth of the internet and its uses. These result from the ever increasing use of social media platforms, and online banking and financial tracking through the introduction of smartphones and handheld tablets. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that daily (or almost daily) internet use by the British public has more than doubled since 2006, initially recorded at 35% increasing up to 87% as of August 2019 (Internet Access – Households and Individuals 2019). This accessibility for the public presents opportunities for cyber criminals, hijacking websites and online public profiles to steal personal information to sell or use themselves. It also opens up new avenues for fraudsters to commit crimes such as identity theft and credit card fraud. This in turn generates problems for the police who have to uphold the law and maintain public trust by deterring and preventing these crimes, and then investigating and bringing to justice those who commit them. Often, on a larger scale, such crimes are committed across international borders where police don’t have jurisdiction, reinforcing the importance of educating the public and preventing these crimes from occurring in the first place.

Whilst new technology can offer increased security measures and protection from cyber criminals (such as anti-virus software, password protection, and biometric systems) there has still been an equally rapid progression in the way crimes are committed as perpetrators overcome these protective measures. The ONS records over one million computer misuse crimes (including computer viruses and hacking) in 2019. Fraud is an example of a cyber-crime that has significantly increased in prevalence. The ONS also states fraud offences were up 9% annually to 3.8 million in the year ending September 2019, suggesting this escalation is due to online forms of fraud. The latest increase was driven mainly by a 15% increase in “bank and credit account fraud” (to 2.7 million offences) (Crime in England and Wales: Year Ending September 2019).

Technological advancements requires that effective policing be dynamic, constantly adapting in response to a developing society that brings with it more opportunities for crime. As the prevalence of cyber-crime grows, police skills and strategies need to evolve, meaning force wide funding is required to continually update and address training. All of this could have a negative impact on some of the key principles of policing with consent, leading to further challenges for police. Committing greater time and resources to cyber-crime with limited finances will demand reallocation of existing resources; for example reducing the size of neighbourhood policing teams, and re-focusing officers on reducing and combatting ‘invisible’ cyber-crimes. Reducing the visible presence of police officers could therefore impact on the public’s trust and confidence in the force as they question the spread of police resources and the lack of a visible presence in the community. Alongside fraud, other prominent examples of misuse of the internet include the increase in child sexual exploitation and grooming. This capitalises on vulnerable children and young adults, coercing them into or preparing them for sexual situations. This also risks them being further manipulated into county lines networks and exposed to gang related criminal activity and in some cases radicalisation.

The fluctuating nature of recent British politics is a further challenge facing police in the UK. Since 2010 there have been four general elections, with different political directions, each introducing new political leadership and ideas, presenting challenges of a coalition government, hung parliament and Brexit. This necessitates meeting targets set out by Home Office’s with contrasting agendas, with those in power often seeming to expect more for less. Chief Superintendent Gavin Thomas, President of the Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales (2018) said:

In addition, the National Audit Office (NAO) reported that central government funding to police forces fell by 30% in real terms since 2010. In total, forces nationally received 19% less funding from combined central and local authorities in 2018-19 than they received in 2010-11, in real terms. This reduction goes hand in hand with the reduction in officer numbers, with the NAO’s same report evidencing that whilst funding cuts and workforce reductions varied between forces, overall there had been:

Such reductions could have a detrimental effect on the police’s ability to provide an effective service and adhere to the Peelian Principles of Law Enforcement, as political agendas reduce the ability of the force to work in what the public views as their best interest. So a lack of visible police presence could undermine previous public approval. Having to meet political targets that often go unrecognised by the public could raise concerns over whether the public understand and acknowledge the further challenges presented to the police hidden behind visible crimes and the public facing neighbourhood officers.

This essay has considered two of the main challenges faced by police in the UK – the changing nature of crime and use of the internet and changing political landscapes. These represent a small proportion, and to summarise, whilst acknowledging and addressing these challenges, it should be remembered that it is the visible presence of police officers and transparency about how crime is being addressed in communities that is fundamental to securing public trust and cooperation across the community. Sir Robert Peel’s vision for the force was of police officers who would be regarded as citizens in uniform, exercising their powers to police their fellow citizens with their consent. This must remain at the foundation of all policy and action across the British police force to allow peak efficiency.


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