In defence of the Bobby
Bibi van der Zee: Denis O'Connor's policing report is well meaning, but it is unclear what it will achieve
25 Nov 09

How strange to come away from an inquiry into policing feeling impressed and even a little touched.

But the report, by Denis O’Connor, the chief inspector of constabulary, into the past, present and future of public order policing, is such an exceptional piece of work that it deserves all the plaudits it will surely get. O’Connor goes at his huge task with real vigour, attacking it enthusiastically from all sides, and never hesitating to criticise the police when he feels that officers have made mistakes.

O’Connor has a very clear vision of the police force he wants to lead; it is a modern police force, making use of modern tools, but still adhering closely to the original ideals of Robert Peel that policing should be “approachable, impartial, accountable… based on minimal force and anchored in public consent”.

Moreover, he wants the starting point for public order policing to be the “presumption in favour of facilitating peaceful protest”. He points out that police have too often asked whether a protest is lawful or unlawful, without recognising that, as he points out, the European Convention on Human Rights grants the “right to peaceful assembly” making no reference to whether it is lawful or not. In fact, he goes on to say; “there is no legal basis in domestic law for describing a public protest as inherently unlawful”.

“It is disquieting that such a modest amount of time is devoted in public order training to the complex legal landscape,” he says in an elegant understatement, as his report reveals not only that many officers commanding public events have not completed their training, but constables are often unfamiliar with public order law, human rights issues, or the legalities of use of force. As examples of these failures, he points to the protests at Kingsnorth in 2008, where police showed “a lack of understanding of the law and police powers”.

He wants changes to training, which he says is too much of a postal lottery; he wants the police to come up with a “set of fundamental principles on the use of force which run as a golden thread through all aspects of policing business”; he wants a review of the operations of the Forward Intelligence Teams, and an examination of the role of the Association of Chief Police Officers; he wants human rights to be at the heart of policing operations. And he’d like it yesterday, please.

The thoroughness of this report is striking. O’Connor has gone over class plans from as many of the public order training units as he could get them from. He has commissioned a review of the literature on crowd psychology. If there is a stone to turn over, he has turned it.

But one of the appendices — appendix one, a review of previous public order policing reviews — reveals that the implementation of these recommendations may be slow, or impossible. Already O’Connor has faced resistance in the force to his report. And calls to improve training, to implement “no surprises” policing, to look at the impact of police behaviour on crowds have been heard before, to little effect, as this year shows.

There are a few lines in the report which hint at part of the problem which will not go away. “Police have found it hard at times to keep pace with the changing dynamics of protest,” writes O’Connor, later describing how during one English Defence League march police came under fire from both sides.

The picture that this paints — of the good old British bobby, beleaguered by protesters who come up with new and better tactics every couple of years, and by troublemakers who regard “the pigs” as the enemy, no matter what approach they take — is a stereotype, and the police fall back on it whenever they get criticized for anything. But it is true that protesters are more and more innovative, and the training which officers may have received just doesn’t prepare them for what happens when they’re out on the street. I think O’Connor is just trying to explain what we all, really, understand; policing is a bloody hard job, and most police are trying to do the best job they can.

I like O’Connors’s pride, his ideal of what British policing can be. I just don’t know if his vision can be realized.