Police Secrecy

The secret policeman has a ball
The Times, Thunderer, 17 November 2005
By Heather Brooke

When I was a reporter in the US, one of the first things I did was ride along with a local cop. I was in South Carolina – hardly the progressive policing capital of America – where it was perfectly normal for members of the public to shadow an officer on the beat. Local people knew the names of their officers, how many were on duty, and had access to weekly crime statistics, street by street.

I’ve tried to ferret out similar facts from the police forces in Britain and failed. Officers are shocked at the idea of trusting the public with such basic information, even though their American counterparts divulge this and much more every day.

Yet Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had the temerity to say at the Richard Dimbleby lecture last night that he’s frustrated by the lack of serious debate about policing. If he’s frustrated how does he think the public feel? How are we meant to have an informed opinion when the police shroud their routine activities with such secrecy? How are we supposed to join the debate when the police and politicians continue to foist their decisions ready-made on us in feudal fashion?

There was no debate about the shoot-to-kill policy. The first the public knew about it was the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. Yesterday it emerged – through leaks, of course – that he was shot with hollow-point bullets; ammunition selected in total secrecy three years ago. Even now the police refuse to justify such decisions, hiding behind the excuse of “national security”.

The Association of Chief Police Officers increasingly controls many aspects of policing. It receives substantial sums of public money, yet is not accountable to us. It is not even considered a public body under the Freedom of Information Act. Acpo lobbied hard for 90-day detention, yet it failed to provide any compelling reason why the police need to hold terror suspects without charge longer than any other democratic country. Tony Blair resorted to arguing that “if the police say they need this power then they should have it”.

For too long the authorities have demanded that we trust them while giving nothing in return. If the commissioner really wants a mature debate he can kick it off by trusting the public enough to give us a full and frank account of what his officers do.

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