20 AUGUST 1988, Page 8


Time for a little scrutiny of the fat blue line


Few of us will grudge them these huge sums of money when we reflect that deaths by murder and unlawful killing of police officers in England and Wales are now running at two per year (HMSO Social Trends), which is definitely above the national average. These two deaths per year in a police establishment of 120,000 give a ratio of 1:60,000 whereas the 661 homicides in England and Wales in 1986 give a ratio of only 1 per 76,000 among the population as a whole. One can sympathise with their anxiety and their requests for armoured gun-ships, tanks, bacteriological weapons and SAS bodyguards for every community policeman on the beat.

Those of us with children in the 18-25 age bracket can easily receive a false impression of the police, simply because most police atrocities seem to be commit- ted against people in this age group. But in point of fact practically no police atrocities are committed. Of 5,236 complaints re- ceived by the Metropolitan Police in 1987, 5,131 were found to be unsubstantiated, and only 105 substantiated. A conviction rate of two per cent is exceptional even by Metropolitan Police standards, and the only conclusion (unless one is prepared to entertain the suspicion that the police complaints procedure is biased or incom- petent) must be that the police are largely innocent of all the things one fears about them.

Which I am quite happy to believe. In my few dealings with the police I have found them — with perhaps two or three exceptions — possessed of a simple desire to do good which is not far removed from saintliness. Good policemen — and most of them who have contact with the public are good — are among the best people in the country, and are still capable of making us all, like Mrs Thatcher, proud of being British. I simply do not know what propor- tion of them is responsible for the deep loathing which so many young whites and black people now appear to feel towards all policemen.

I can't believe that the situation is improved by Mrs Thatcher's adulation of the police, by the way her passion for secrecy allows practically no scrutiny of what is going on in the 43 police forces of England and Wales, or by the way that whenever she is feeling a little insecure on her perch she allows the force to take another couple of thousand raw louts off the streets and stuff them with money until it is coming out of their ears.

The discrepancies between the country's forces are huge, only to be glimpsed occasionally and from an oblique angle. Thus we learn from a Report of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders that whereas it costs £201 a night to keep a prisoner in a police cell in the Metropolitan Police area, it costs only £21 a night in the West Midlands. The purpose of this report was to draw attention to the scandalous shor- tage of prison space, which does not begin to cater for our national passion for impris- oning people. But that is another point altogether. As the moronic, vulgar press shrieks out, week after week, for longer sentences, the prison population held in police cells because there was no room for them in prisons has quadrupled between 1986 and 1987 and tripled again between 1987 and March 1988, although we are assured that it has eased off since. I proposed a way of dealing with custodial problems some time ago, in Waugh's Udenopticon' — a system of more or less unsupervised penal colonies, established on remote islands in the North Atlantic although, to my amazement, nobody in government seems to have taken it up. The average cost of keeping a prisoner in a police cell is £651 per week, against £231 'Grass snake' per week in a prison or remand centre. Waugh's Udenopticon would cost about £60 per week per prisoner, and be paid for by vastly increased fines for all non-violent offences, but that is a separate enthusiasm. One learns about the enormous disparities between police forces only obliquely, as I say.

Some time before he retired from the office of Chief Inspector of Constabulary to make way for the appalling Charles MacLachlan, Mr R. S. Barrett proposed that a list should be published every year of the ten worst police forces. The idea was taken up by Miss Alison Halford, Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside, who prop- osed that the list should be based on sickness and absenteeism. Although the comparisons were interesting enough (the City of London and Cleveland came out worst) and put the kibosh on any theory that absenteeism was caused by greater pressures of work, the overall figures were what impressed me most. The nation's 120,000 police officers, according to the Police Review, each theoretically putting in 230 working days per annum, manage to lose 1,600,000 working days a year for `sickness' reasons. Every day, 7,000 police officers fail to report for work. The aver- age police officer takes off 13.35 days from work for health reasons (22.33 on Merseyside etc).

This is all very well, but one discovers it only by endless searching through of unre- lated documents on peripheral subjects. The reports by HM Inspectors of Consta- bulary on local forces are never published — unlike those on prisons, hospitals and schools — even to the police authorities concerned. There are 500 HMIs in the Education Department, but only a handful in the Home Office. Yet we see policemen receiving a 8.5 per cent pay increase next month, against 4.5 per cent for teachers. It may be true that 8.5 per cent is the average increase in the private sector, but the private sector takes into account productiv- ity and overtime agreements. The police settlement does not. Perhaps the new, exhibitionist Inspector of Constabulary Will press for publication of these reports. Until he does, and making every allowance for Mrs Thatcher's most endearing insecurities as she tells us what Britons are thinking from her eyrie in Downing Street, I feel it reasonable to ask what the hell is happen- ing in the police.