Friday, 1 February 2013

Seminar on Police Ethics

This week, my institution – Plymouth University Law and Criminal Justice Centre – hosted an interesting guest seminar on a very topical subject: the ethical values and conduct of the police. I thought I’d post a summary of what was said.

Entitled ‘Police Ethics: Through A Glass Darkly’, the seminar was jointly presented by an academic, Professor Allyson MacVean (University of Chester), and an operational officer, Detective Superintendent Keith Perkin (Devon and Cornwall Police) – and it was refreshing to see scholarship and practice coming together to discuss this thorny and complex issue. 

Professor MacVean opened by referring to this month’s report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in which the police were ranked the least ethical institution in the eyes of the public (alongside MPs). She also noted the recent reports of the Leveson Enquiry, the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and Desmond Da Silva’s investigation into the murder of Pat Finucane as topical examples of the heavy criticism the police have received for being untrustworthy, unaccountable and thus illegitimate. She highlighted that this primarily implicated senior police officers as opposed to the rank and file – a shift from past perceptions of unethical behaviour within the police. 

Professor MacVean explained that police ethics is not however a new issue. In 1999, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) espoused a series of qualities and values that the police should uphold, in its report ‘Police Integrity’. These included honesty, integrity, fairness, equal treatment and probity. She asserted that police ethics is important primarily because of the law enforcement duties of the police and the powers of discretion and autonomy applied to significant decisions affecting the public. 

She outlined how current attempts to define ‘police ethics’ are lacking in meaning and resonance. She pointed out that the police has no Code of Ethics (apart from in Northern Ireland), having failed to adopt ACPO’s draft version from 1992. Instead, several ‘arrangements’ exist, including the Oath of Office, the Statement of Common Purpose (1993), the Code of Conduct (under the Police Act 1996), the Statement of Mission and Values (2011), and the Police Ethical Decision Model (2011). 

Professor MacVean argued that, despite this raft of measures, police ethics remains a serious problem and identified three key reasons. First, she asserted that a ‘paramilitary philosophy’ remains part and parcel of policing – that is, orders are dispensed by the higher echelons which rank and file officers obediently follow without challenge or question. As such, little or no moral deliberation takes place. She suggested the lack of transparency in the decision-making process aggravated the problem; the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) had, despite their democratic election, not helped this due to issues including inflated salaries, election rigging, lack of mandate, and nepotism. The second and third factors were a lack of training in ethics for police officers and the insufficiency of the current models, which do not mention or address ethics directly. 

Professor MacVean stated that ethical dilemmas were a real problem for operational police officers. In situations with no clear right or wrong answer, the discretion of the police becomes a very significant issue since the consequences of unethical behaviour could have a substantial impact. She also underlined the Neyroud Report’s recommendation that the police progress towards the status of ‘profession’ rather than ‘vocation’. She identified research activity, self-regulation (an impossibility for the police), degree-level education and a code of ethics as characteristics of a professional organisation, indicating that the matter of police ethics would need to be properly addressed sooner or later. 

Det Sup Keith Perkin proceeded to provide an operational police officer’s perspective on the issues raised. He commented that the police used to be a more trusted and respected institution, despite the poor attitude and behaviour of some officers from older generations. He suggested that police behaviour had not been adequately challenged in recent years, but that the reports mentioned by Professor MacVean highlighted the need to do so. He questioned whether the public had excessive expectations of the police; considering the very significant impact of the police on the lives of the public – through the removal of liberty, intrusive operations and covert conduct – he concluded that expectations should be high. 

He identified institutional and individual corruption and incompetence as matters of substantial urgency that damaged the credibility of the police, a service relied upon 24/7 by citizens and other public services. He argued that the police were now less accessible due to the closure of police ‘houses’ and stations, the rarity of officers living in their area of work, and the use of vehicles to undertake police work. As such, the police (as individuals and an institution) were less known and visible, with the force as a whole lacking connection with local communities. However, he also suggested atttiudes in society had changed generally over the last half century, with less respect for institutions of authority, a more self-indulgent attitude amongst the public, and more deliberate disobedience. 

Det Sup Perkin highlighted the increased performance management of the police since the 1990s, with HMIC inspecting, observing and pressuring the service, particularly in politically important areas like crime recording. He singled out the problem of lower crime figures and whether they should be interpreted as less crime or higher recording levels. He also disputed Professor MacVean’s assertion about the ‘paramilitary philosophy’ of the police, suggesting that senior levels were now more engaged with rank and file officers, indicating some shift in culture. 

He proceeded to discuss the problem of ethical decision-making in the context of Det Sup Steve Fulcher of Wiltshire Police and his handling of the Christopher Halliwell case, in which Fulcher breached PACE in order to ensure the suspect identified a second murder victim. He argued Fulcher’s subsequent suspension was controversial; he had attempted to do the right thing in a difficult situation (earning great admiration from the family of the second victim) but failed to fulfil the obligations of the statute. If such behaviour was unethical, he suggested it was hard to call it either corrupt or incompetent. 

He concluded by suggesting that the ethical framework of the police had been changed markedly by PACE, but that less money, worse working conditions, more pressure and low morale made ethical behaviour more difficult for many, citing the example of organised crime figures targeting police officers to ‘corrupt’. However, he argued that many police officers demonstrated a daily commitment to helping people and suggested that media portrayals of the police were often distorted and unfair.

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