The police don’t need more powers – they need a new approach.

David Cameron was absolutely right to argue that society is broken. He is absolutely wrong if he thinks a more authoritarian approach is part of the solution to fix it.

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Met police conducting a stop and search during the London riots.
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Nick Pickles
On 13 October 2011 14:14

Policing by consent has been a fundamental part of British democracy since Sir Robert Peel decided that his new force’s uniforms should highlight that his officers were not a civilian army.

In recent years, this ethos has become increasingly distant – from council wardens being handed police-powers to fine people and demand personal details to the SWAT style uniforms regularly seen on the street.

Despite all the rhetoric from force leaders about neighbourhood policing and being part of the community, when the London riots eventually flared the police were left claiming they had ‘no intelligence’ to suggest that the kind of events that unfolded were a risk.

So it fell to the Prime Minister – and today the Home Secretary – to set the context of the debate as one about police powers.

Westminster is told how more powers, from social media control to removing face masks, are needed to prevent riots happening again.

It’s difficult to avoid sounding sarcastic when you ask how giving the police powers to ask rioters to remove facial masks would have stopped the disorder.

Officer: “Excuse me sir, would you mind removing that mask please?”

Rioter: “On what grounds, officer?”

“I have reasonable grounds to suspect you may be about to engage in criminal activity.”

“And how have you reached that conclusion?”

“Well you and your friends have just marched down the highstreet loudly proclaiming you were going to smash up Curry’s and pick up a new 42 inch plasma.”

“Oh crumbs. Well I was only joking.”

“And how do you explain the large block of concrete you’re currently holding?”

“I’m helping clear up.”

“Oh lovely. Well if you could just remove that mask and put your hoodie down, I’ll be on my way.”

If a police officer believes someone is about to commit a crime, they already have the power to arrest them.

If a police officer is unable to intervene for fear of their own safety – or as in some cases during the riots, there is no police officer in the vicinity – then more powers do not solve the problem.

Both Coalition parties repeatedly highlighted the proliferation of criminal offences and new powers introduced by the last government, and how such an approach made the police’s work harder by ‘rewriting the rule book’ repeatedly.

Less than 18 months after the election, they seem to have abandoned this outlook and are falling into the same trap as their predecessors.

This week, the man frequently hailed as an example of how to combat gangs made his views very clear.

Bill Bratten, former head of the New York and Los Angeles police departments, highlighted how you cannot "arrest your way out of the problem" of gangs and crime. His ‘broken windows’ approach -- tackle the small things and use data to highlight crime hot-spots -- did not require more powers, but a focused and determined use of resources.  

His name was much lauded in the aftermath of the riots, yet his expertise is increasingly being lost in the usual political rhetoric that surrounds crime. The fact that more powers are being proposed before the review into the causes of the riots has concluded speaks volumes about the motivation behind these proposals.

David Cameron was absolutely right to argue that society is broken. He is absolutely wrong if he thinks a more authoritarian approach is part of the solution to fix it.

Nick Pickles is the Director of Big Brother Watch, a campaign group formed to defend civil liberties and protect privacy. He tweets at @nickpickles. 

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