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Historic child abuse uproar shows inevitability of police accountability reform

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The war-of-all-against-all about historic child abuse which currently engulfs the police, politicians and the media points to a long-term problem with accountability for policing and, in particular, for the way the public understands the justification for a particular course of police action.

British policing has traditionally been undertaken on the basis of public ‘consent’, with the police fully responsible for operational decisions. But so much has changed in the decades since Dixon of Dock Green it is hard to avoid the conclusion that reform is required to the way in which the police gain legitimacy for their actions.

There has long been widespread support for the concept of police operational independence: no one wants politicians meddling in decisions about which criminals to pursue and which not. Yet with the decline of deference and a willingness to challenge anyone with power, the role of chief constables is under intolerable pressure. Senior police officers, who are non-political, now find themselves stuck in the middle of highly-politicised processes.

The police have questions to answer about the way they have handled a number of recent high-profile investigations. On the other hand, politicians appear to have found ways of applying pressure to the police service so as to put senior officers in a position where any course of action appears wrong. Although such pressures do not amount to operational control, they lead to political impact. The trouble is, such impact is rarely transparent.

Even more challenging is the fact chief constables cannot be held publicly to account in the way Cabinet ministers or council leaders can. When individuals are treated in ways that natural justice suggests are unreasonable or unfair there are no obvious ways to hold chief constables to account. 

Many hard words have been written about police decision-making in recent weeks. England & Wales and Scotland probably need to look again at the way the police are held to account. Either there will have to be a clearer way for senior police officials publicly to explain their actions or politicians will have to step in to take more direct responsibility for operation decisions. Either of these options would be radical in the context of British policing history.

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