Deconstructing the constable? The police powers debate

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Deconstructing the constable? The police powers debate

Just when you thought the government had taken its foot off the police reform accelerator, Theresa May has produced another package of radical changes. This time the focus is on the role of the constable and how police powers should be distributed within a smaller and changing workforce.

The Home Secretary proposes to replace the existing list of powers that can be designated to police staff with a new list of core powers that can only be exercised by a warranted officer. These are the powers that have the greatest effect on the liberty of the citizen for example, to arrest, to stop and search and to enter property.Outside of those reserved powers of constables, chief officers will be able to designate other powers to staff and volunteers as they see fit.

The office of the police constable is the foundation of our police service and should remain so. Those powers that affect the fundamental liberty of the citizen should only be exercised by a highly trained police professional who acts independently to uphold the law without fear or favour’.

However, in the face of enormous further cuts in police funding alongside the radically changing nature of demand, chief constables need the flexibility to deploy their workforce differently.Far better to be clear about what is at the core of the role of the warranted constable and to provide flexibility outside of that, than to limit chief constables to a rigid list of specified powers that may be designated to civilians.

Opponents have declared it’s policing on the cheap’.If by this they mean that the reforms will lead to worse policing, there is little evidence for that. For example, Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) were opposed in 2002 on precisely the same grounds, but they were critical in the restoration of neighbourhood policing and the ensuing improvements in police visibility and public confidence.Safeguards in place to ensure that powers are only designated to suitable and capable people who have received appropriate training have been sufficient to ensure standards are maintained.

Designating police powers to civilians should help the police adapt to changing demand. For example, the legislation introducing the National Crime Agency gave the Director General of that organisation the power to designate the powers of a constable to NCA staff. This enables the NCA to recruit the specialist staff it needs to investigate complex crime while providing them with certain powers essential to their role such as entering properties, seizing goods and making arrests.

There has always been a role for volunteers in policing and these reforms simply provide greater flexibility in their deployment. Special Constables have existed since 1831 and on the basis of a 24 day training programme, plus a further period on supervised patrol, are given the full powers of a police constable. If someone can volunteer to take on full powers to arrest and stop and search, why should they not volunteer to take on the more limited powers of a PCSO?

Flexibility in how the police workforce is deployed is increasingly important given the spending cuts and changing demands affecting all public services. For example, we face the growing challenge of protecting the vulnerable from abuse, but in the context of limited resources we need to rethink who is best placed to do what and where the particular investigatory skills and enforcement powers of police officers are required. Greater flexibility within the police service is an important step in facilitating a wider reshaping of the public service frontline.

Rick Muir, Director, the Police Foundation