Saturday, 21 March 2009

Insert Own PC Joke Here

Merseyside PC Steve Bettley has been fired for being a member of the BNP. He denies being a member, but that's for the appeal process to decide.

What I'm trying to decide is how I feel about membership in the police force being contingent on "approved" political views. It's genuinely something I'm not sure about. On the one hand, I get that the police can't function without the support (or at least the tolerance) of the general public, and that their ability to work would be seriously compromised were individual officers to be known "undesirables". The problem with that line of thought, of course, is that you could find time periods in which I would have been considered an undesirable, at least in (say) the States, and the idea that I shouldn't have been allowed to serve justice because a bunch of other people hated me isn't one I'm particularly keen on.

There's also the fact that the police are charged with following the will of the current government, in combination with the legal framework. Given that, certain political views might prove problematic in a policeman. An anarchist, for example, wouldn't be likely to make much of a constable, but then it's difficult to imagine under what circumstances an anarchist would want to be a policeman. You have to really want the job, after all, (it is not easy to get into the police force in this country, as my associate ChaosGibbon could tell you), and anarchists are less well-known for attempting to bring down the system from within than they are getting up at 3pm and scrawling graffiti across statues.

Nevertheless, the point remains that there are political impulses incompatible with policing. Crucially, though, those views are incompatible with the very mechanics of authority, rather than having a view about what authorities should do that happens to differ significantly from the mean. The implication here is that if the political party you want in charge is different enough from the one that is in charge, you can't be trusted keep the peace. That's a generalisation I'm not comfortable with.

The counter, I guess, is pretty simple. Anyone signed up with a group so viciously stupid as to have to assume that two people with the same skin colour must be essentially indistinguishable cannot possibly have the necessary brain-power to police the streets. You would hope the police would be able to tell that at the time of hiring, though, or at least work it out pretty quckly once this KKKPC starts working a beat. In that sense it's at least arguable that firing people for being in the BNP is a tacit acknowledgement that the police aren't capable of weeding out big old racists from their own ranks, which a worrying thought.

It should go without saying that I despise the BNP and all they stand for. Part of being a (hopefully) reasonably enlightened individual though is realising you have to separate how much you hate someone from your opinion of how they should be treated. This policy, if nothing else, implies we think certain political groups find that a harder thing to do than others. Which might be true, actually (there has been some interesting work done with comparing political affiliations with a person's degree of empathy), but it's something I'd like to see proved before we start deciding who can and can't be trusted to keep us safe.

Anyone else have any thoughts about this? I know if nothing else at least one of you is a policeman, though I have yet to receive any suggestion that I have any racist readers.


Kim said...

I'm not sure I like being policed by ardent Evangelists, homophobes, Tories or any other group whose beliefs mine don't align with. And I'm sure other people feel the same. If a police officer does their job in line with the guidelines the government sets them, then their personal beliefs are irrelevant. If they can't (Mr BNP takes to using racist language or only targeting certain people, then he should be removed) I'm not sure membership is enough to fire someone. Do we start firing public servants for membership of certain churches? Or do we do the logical thing and wait for them to act in a way contrary to their responsibilities?

I assume there are rules about acceptable activities for the police that are designed to prevent corruption. And also rules that disallow abuse of the position of authority given to them. Can a policeman become a local councillor or MP?

Senior Spielbergo said...

I’m very much of the view that Police Officers, in order to remain effective have to be impartial. It is also not simply enough to be impartial, but in the world of today it is equally important to also appear impartial, a subtle difference but an important one. It is therefore essential that a police officer, as well as acting in an impartial way (which it would be hoped that all good police officers would do, treating everyone the same regardless of age, sex, race, political belief or religion etc) maintain the appearance of being impartial.

By way of example, if you were a police officer and you were an avid supporter of (and I use it only as an example) the Labour Party, and you went out (in your spare time of course) and actively campaigned, maybe going to rallies, maybe appearing on TV, maybe handing out flyers, whatever. The end result is that it would become known that you supported Labour. Now dependant on your level of involvement this could be a small number of people who are aware of this fact, or a large number of people if you are very actively involved. What then happens if you have to arrest or investigate a high profile Tory supporter? You could conduct the investigation with utmost integrity, complete impartiality and perfect professionalism, but someone is going to turn around and make the suggestion that you’ve only done it because you’re a Labour man and the investigation is therefore tainted. In the best of cases you’re going to end up with the rumour mill spinning and some members of the community you are supposed to police are going to treat you with suspicion. In the worst of cases you could end up with complaints impacting your career, the case could be lost, lots of publicity could ensue and you would find it very difficult to continue in your role.

That is an example using a high profile case, but the same problems can arise when dealing with a very low profile individual who recognises you as being of that political persuasion, insinuating that you are biased and generally making life difficult for you. The appearance of impartiality is an essential tool in the police officer’s arsenal.

Now offsetting the above you have to factor in that despite common belief, police officers are people too, and are entitled to political views and of course a life outside work. Therefore the general view is that you can be a member of political parties, you can express opinions, but you shouldn’t do so in uniform or obviously fulfilling the role of a police officer. You have to make it clear the difference between the individual and the office. It’s a very fine line and there’s no simple answer as whilst you can’t and shouldn’t prevent officers exercising their political rights, it is fairly actively discouraged because of the issues above. Most police officers I think accept this, as they should have been aware of the limitations as to what you can and can’t do when they joined up.

Now in the case of the BNP and certain other political parties it becomes a bit more complex in that the government has made a decision to complexly ban police officers from being a member of these organisations. I believe this ban only applies to those organisations who openly profess to a racist manifesto and as such the decision was made to not allow police officers to belong to these organisations. I would point out that this ban only applies to membership, it does not extend to preventing these officers voting for them in elections, or supporting them in other ways, it simply prevents them from appearing on their membership lists. Given my above examples, it is fairly clear that such problems would be many times worse in the case of being associated with an organisation known for racism and can also have an effect beyond the single officer in question (the age old if one officer is associated with the BNP then members of the public will leap to the conclusion that all officers are associated) so I do not believe it is an unreasonable restriction to impose in order to maintain the effectiveness of the police force as a whole.

What is important in respect of the firing of individuals is that the rules are very clear, and they have been in existence for sometime. You make the decision to be a police officer and you are given great power and great responsibility (God I sound like Uncle Ben), and I think you therefore have to accept certain limitations in what you can and can’t do. I therefore have very little sympathy with this particular individual, who assuming he is guilty (and the list was publicised several months ago and this has only occurred after the investigation is complete), knew the rules and broke them. I think it is a fairly cardinal rule that Police Officers especially need to know how to obey the rules.

SpaceSquid said...

It's a good point that "membership" is different from "support", certainly. I think Kim's analogy to membership of certain churches might fall down on that score.

I also take the point that while Kim and I both agree that it would be far preferable to fire people once they prove themselves incapable of being able to police fairly than just have blanket bans, the lack of confidence issue would be far harder to address. One imagines that it would be very difficult to prove someone had lost the confidence of the public, and harder still to fire them over it.

It's probably the case that my problem with all of this stems from a much more basic issue: I am continually horrified by the idea that we should base policy on what people think (there's a reason the idea of pure democracy fills me with dread), even in situations like this, when I personally sympathise with the view being expressed.