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Video on policing.
When you think about it, the very idea of policing can seem simultaneously appealing yet challenging. On the one hand, the idea that there is a set of people who keep an eye on things, investigate crime and generally keep the peace is socially attractive; but on the other hand the idea that one group of citizens has significant authority and power over others – to stop them as they go about their business; to detain them and to ask them questions; to search them; to limit their liberty in a range of ways – is a big deal for a liberal society, however well-motivated the exercise of those powers might be.
What we might say is that as a society we accept that we should not be taking the law into our own hands and all trying to solve crime problems privately – the argument would be that that could be chaotic. So we all notionally agree to give up some of our personal liberty to the State, and through the State, to the police - and we consent to being policed, in return for the keeping of the peace, and for the orderly investigation of crime. But we don’t give the State unlimited power over us – so we don’t consent to overly intrusive or authoritarian public policing.
So the ways in which policing happens, the rules and practices which constitute policing – they all deserve scrutiny. So, to evaluate policing, we can look at the particular legal rules which define police powers. We see that over time rules have developed which set particular limits on the scope of those powers – so what conditions need to be satisfied before somebody can be stopped and searched; when can somebody be arrested; for how long can they be detained; how is the interrogation of suspects to be conducted? But just looking at the legal rules about powers won’t give us a complete picture – just like in any organisation you have to look beyond the formal policies to find out fully how it works.
First, the rules themselves give police significant discretion – so, for example, a power to search may require ‘reasonable suspicion’ – but that is an idea which is open to some interpretation. And policing is characterised by a broader discretion about how to police, which investigations to pursue and which not to pursue, where to target resources. How this discretion is exercised may be informed by targets set locally or centrally, but it will also be informed by how police perceive their own role – by what they think their job is, by the cultures of policing. To evaluate policing we might also look at how it is governed and how it is made accountable.
There is an interesting combination of central and local governance in policing, which sometimes creates tensions. So the Home Office is the government department with overall responsibility for policing. There are over 35 police forces in England and Wales, arranged by geographical area, typically along a county basis. Each of these forces has a Chief Constable with overall responsibility for operational decisions; and a Police and Crime Commissioner who sets overall priorities for the area. The PCC is an elected role – this aspect was controversial when the role was created.
On the one hand, it creates a direct chain of accountability to the public, but on the other hand, there might be a concern that a PCC’s perceived need to be popular might distort policing priorities. And of course, all policing decisions – whether they are strategic decisions about how to tackle crime and what overall priorities to set, or operational decisions about how to conduct a particular investigation, take place in the context of limited resources. The way in which policing happens, and the decisions that police take, shape our understanding of crime significantly, because they contribute to the official picture of what crime there is out there. And policing can’t be all things to all people.
It is inevitably controversial – and that’s one of the things which makes it interesting.

In this video I discuss some background issues relating to policing:

(i) Why do we have police and what justifies their existence? (In this context notice the importance of our consent to being policed.)

(ii) How do rules and cultures contribute to the functioning of policing?

(iii) How are the police governed, and what might be the benefits and disadvantages of that mode of governance?

You can also hopefully sense in the discussion the importance of discretion in how police go about their work.

If you find any of the issues in the video interesting, do discuss your thoughts with your colleagues.

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From Crime to Punishment: an Introduction to Criminal Justice

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