Have the police become less accountable in recent years? How can police accountability be strengthened? This essay aims to focus on the subject of police accountability and whether this has increased or decreased over the years. The essay will also discuss ways in which governmental bodies are able to strengthen police accountability. Issues such as the number of deaths in custody and the failing powers of the police in administrating justice will be discussed, all relating to the question of whether the police are using their powers justly and whether they are being held accountable for their actions.
The issue of police accountability and deviance within police practice has been a mounting concern since the eighteenth century. Corruption had not and was not a problem until allegations of malpractice and corruption within the practice brought serious concern, and as a result the Royal commission was established in 1959, and was later followed the Police Act 1964. It is seldom understood how relatively modern the idea of a Police force actually is. It was not until 1829 that Sir Robert Peel's Police began to enforce the law in the streets of London.
The Metropolitan Police Act 1829 provided the world's first preventive, professional, legally accountable Police force. The police Act 1964 holds the present arrangement of practices within the police force today, through a tripartite structure which has three divisions; the Chief constables under the police act 1964 are given responsibility for the "direction and control of their force" and are required to present the home secretary along with their police authority with an annual report.
Chief constables are further required to investigate any complaints against their police force and further submit them to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) if they are considered to be serious concerns (Jefferson and Grimshaw 1984). The home secretary suggests further improvements, and may ask police authorities to retire chief constables that appear to be inefficient at their duties.
Lastly the police authorities are to maintain an adequate and well-organized force, and are able to appoint, discipline and retire senior ranked officers (subject to the approval of the home secretary). It is obvious from this hierarchical structure that there may be difficulties in complaint resolution and effective investigation of issues within the force, leading to bureaucratic inefficiency due to police having to investigate themselves. This issue was later changed with an external body allocated for investigating internal corruption.
In 1967 as a result of urbanization, the police force decided to take the traditional "bobby" off his local beat and his traditional community duties around the community were removed, instead the police were put into motorized patrol units, with the use of electronic radios, hoping to increase the response to emergency calls and improve public relations with the community. However this movement was counterproductive and failed to bring the police closer to the community.
People felt intimidated by their heavy patrolling, and community problems alongside street corners were not being seen to, as beat officers were now in motorized and fenced vans. Many infamous public disorders took place in 1981, such as the Brixton riots, where 7,000 officers were deployed, 400 officers injured and 250 people were arrested. Such riots according to Lord Scarman who was appointed to investigate the case were apparently caused through the lack of police accountability and the general public opinion that the police did not understand public needs, therefore areas such as community consultation needed corroboration.
Police expenditure was heavily increasing and the question of its reliability was decreasing. The police were becoming an increasing financial burden but they were not reducing crime rates and clear up rates were decreasing by the year. Morgan and Newburn (1997) state figures from CIPFA police statistics, demonstrating, clear up rates for notifiable offences declining from 41% in 1979 to 35% in 1984, which suggests that Police efficiency was in need of reform.
In an attempt to improve these figures, Thatcher bought with her the strict policies of a monetarist regime in 1979 and encouraged privatisation, which was itself an attempt to remove inefficiency and stagnant industries. This inevitably led to a fresh approach to police accountability and efficiency brought about by the strict budgets imposed by Mrs Thatcher. The minors strike of the 1980's, again managed to change the ever-changing face of the police force with the almost complete removal of the friendly British bobby.
However, through the development of the tripartite system, some chief constables felt that they had god given powers to do as they pleased. The question of accountability was once again raised when a chief constable in Manchester felt it was his duty to remove all homosexuals from the streets (Anne Dunn, 2002; Lecture 5 "Police accountability"). These issues of corruption that took place in the 1980's highlighted the concern for police practice, accountability and the concentration of police powers.
To this end, Operation countryman was an inquiry into the alleged corruption amongst metropolitan police officers. Ironically, even this investigation into corruption was surrounded by a shroud of sleaze, (Morgan and Newburn 1997). As a result of such malpractices in the 1980's, the Police Act 1964 introduced a police complaints board which was to attain copies of any investigation taking place and were able to recommend a disciplinary tribunal.
However this did not work, as their decisions were based solely on the majority vote, a vote that included police votes, therefore an inevitably biased result. In response to the failure of the complaints board, the police and criminal evidence act (1984) replaced the complaints board with the Police Complaints Authority (PCA). The PCA was able to investigate into any case they wished, and were allocated specific cases to review, such as notably alleged assaults by the police.
However research has shown that public opinion states, "the new system commands no more confidence than the old one" (Reiner and Spencer 1993 cite Maguire and Corbett 1991). In 1993-1994 The Tories took managerial control and as a result the white paper report, Sheehy report along with the Audit commission together limited police power and reduced police expenditure, encouraging a steady tightening of financial and managerial accountability.
Sheehy report suggested that the pyramid of police ranks should be flattened, there should be fixed term contracts, and performance related pay (PRP). Its suggestions were taken into consideration, and gladly only PRP was rejected. As a result of the Police and magistrates courts Act 1994 chief constables were given limited contracts of 5 years in an attempt to strengthen accountability rates. Encouraging constables to deal with complaints without having to take long period relationship with other officers into consideration.
Hoping to reduce corruption within the complaints system. More recently Morgan and Newburn (1997), stated that the police and magistrates courts act, in 1994 reconstructed the tripartite structure to police decision making. They believed more powers should be available to police authorities along with the home secretary, and this act was consolidated through the police act 1996. However although accountability was heading in the right direction many officers were still being caught with their fingers in corrupt activities.