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Challenges of Democracy and Accountability
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How does society hold its police to account? It’s a vital part of upholding law and liberty but changing modes of policing delivery and new technologies call for fresh thinking about the way we guard our guards.

This much-needed new book from leading criminology professor Michael Rowe, part of the ‘Key Themes in Policing’ series, explores issues of governance, discipline and transparency. The landmark new study:

• Showcases how social change and rising inequalities make it more difficult to ensure meaningful accountability;

• Addresses the impact of Evidence-Based Policing strategies on the direction and control of officers;

• Sets out a game-changing agenda for ensuring democratic and answerable policing.

For policing students and practitioners, it’s an essential guide to modern-day accountability.

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Previous chapters have considered mechanisms and principles of police governance in terms of the various formal institutions and policies introduced to hold police to account. Some of these have been explicitly developed for such purposes and are primarily responsible for the direction and oversight of police services. They are rule based, legally constituted and bureaucratic. PCCs and HMICFRS are principal actors in this regard. Other agencies and practices guide and shape police officer discretion (and so provide some measure of governance) in more indirect ways, as a supplement to other functions. Chapter 6 analysed the role of technology, such as BWCs, and policy requirements, such as positive arrest policies in relation to domestic abuse, that effectively shape officer behaviour (and so are a form of governance) even though this might not be their principal or primary function. Returning to Romzek and Dubnick’s (1987) four-way model of accountability, which distinguished between internal and external sources with either high or low degrees of control, the discussion has focused on external and internal mechanisms with high levels of control expressed in legal and bureaucratic forms. The book has also examined various types of professional forms of accountability that are also internally sourced, such as complaints and discipline, and the development of professional standards.

In contrast, the focus in this chapter is instead predominantly on external forms of oversight that offer low levels of control, at least in formal legal terms. Similar arrangements were described by White (2016) in the context of the British private security industry as forms of ‘soft accountability’.

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Changing organisational, legal and political arrangements that hold police services to account have been identified throughout previous chapters. This final chapter considers the political economy of accountability and argues that greater attention needs to be paid to the changing context in which mechanisms developed alongside the modern police in the 19th century currently operate. Key among these are arguments that the position of the nation state – the sovereign source of accountability in traditional models – is weakened in relation to transnational and networked policing (Wood and Shearing 2007). Not only has the relative decline of the nation state meant that governance and accountability have been de-territorialised, it has also meant that private and third-sector agencies have become embedded into practices of policing and regulation such that these become much more difficult to hold to account (Mazerolle and Ransley 2005). As Wood and Shearing (2007) note, power increasingly resides in the relationships between the nodes in a networked policing environment, and not in the nodes themselves. It is more difficult to govern forms of policing that emerge from these relationships, especially since – as previous chapters have demonstrated – mechanisms for accountability have developed around specific policing institutions. The combination of internal and external forms of governance, with low or high degrees of control (as in Romzek and Dubnick’s [1987] model of accountability, which has been returned to at many stages in this book), focus on relations between particular agencies and do not extend to the processes of law enforcement and regulation that emerge from policing networks.

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The 21st century poses distinct new twists for the very long-standing challenge of holding police to account and providing democratic governance of a range of law enforcement and regulatory agencies with considerable power over citizens. Web-based technology and artificial intelligence (AI) seem poised to transform policing and social regulation in fundamental ways just as swathes of other industries and services have experienced. Often characterised as ‘predictive policing’, the possibility that law enforcement and partner agencies might mine vast reserves of intelligence and data in order to forecast – with spectacular accuracy – the perpetrator, venue and timing of offences yet to happen offers a policing future by turns terrifying and exhilarating in criminological terms. Potentially, the reach of such technologies expands the scope and power of policing such that long-established moral, ethical and political concerns about democratic accountability are considerably more pressing. By 2020 the Chinese government plans to have fully deployed a social credit system that uses big data and principles of commercial credit scoring to assess the ‘trustworthiness’ and social standing of all citizens, using vast and complex systems of surveillance technology (Liang et al 2018). Not only does this new combination of policing, surveillance and regulation offer the possibility of identifying any individual anywhere in China within a matter of moments, it provides the basis for high-level social sorting such that freedom of movement, access to services, and political and social participation can be permitted or denied via technological assemblages. It is argued at many points in the book that the rush to technological determinism needs to be resisted in the face of such predictions: that such developments might be technically possible does not mean that they will be enacted.

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Drawing on public administration, legal and political science literature, this chapter establishes some of the conceptual framework necessary to understand police accountability, including the vexed notion of operational independence and the empirical evidence supporting the importance of legitimacy for effective practice. At the end of the chapter is a discussion of the changing nature of police governance in neoliberal globalised societies in which state-centred models of governance are increasingly strained. Pluralised and networked forms of policing, engaging agencies across sectors and across national borders, appear difficult to hold to account and the possibility of ensuring democratic policing, responsive to the needs and interests of the public, seems ever more difficult to secure. It is noted throughout the chapter that the ends of accountability are varied, and are important as a matter of principle as well as practical effectiveness. In the following chapter the discussion develops to consider the operationalisation of accountability through organisational practices at national and local level, and in relation to pluralised policing.

That the police in modern liberal democratic society ought to be accountable to political authorities, and ultimately to the public at large, is a straightforward principle in as much as all public institutions are governed by the local and national state, and networks of ‘arms-length’ regulators, inspectors and auditors. The principles and practices of public administration extend to the police alongside other public services; indeed a classic early study of the role and power of police constables over citizens identified officers as ‘street level bureaucrats’ (Lipsky 1980).

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Multi-level governance of policing incorporates a range of statutory mechanisms to hold police to account. Following on from the discussion of the principles of accountability in the previous chapter, in this section the focus moves on to analyse democratic policing in relation to its practical application across the four nations of the UK. The various roles of central government, PCCs, devolved and local government, and agencies such as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) will be critically analysed. It is argued that conventional approaches that distinguish between central and local sites of accountability are increasingly outmoded since the delivery of policing services transcends the borders of police constabulary areas. Moreover, the development of devolved government to the constituent nations within the UK means that national oversight is delivered in part at the sub-nation state level in UK terms. Furthermore, many of the national frameworks for accountability incorporate local actors, and vice versa. Since the national/local dichotomy is a useful heuristic model and reflects the historical development of police governance, it is retained in the structure of this chapter, which first analyses national and then local measures. As is shown, this is an artificial distinction in practice in an era in which policing is increasingly pluralised.

As the first two chapters have outlined, accountability is a multifaceted and multilayered set of practices. The discussion in this chapter focuses on the formal ‘hard’ mechanisms of accountability, the statutory and regulatory frameworks that are primarily concerned with the governance of public policing.

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Whereas the focus of the previous chapter was on those mechanisms of governance and accountability that provide oversight and direction in broad terms, the discussion below considers the systems for responding to complaints relating to misconduct or malfeasance at the level of individual police officers or particular operational activities. Returning to the distinction between accountability as a set of practices providing for future governance and accountability as a retrospective process to review past performance, systems for investigating alleged wrongdoing have tended to be in the latter category. It is argued later in the chapter that the key development in England and Wales has been to increase transparency in the investigation of complaints against police, although the benefits of this might not be as significant in and of themselves. In terms of Jarvis’s (2014) typology of accountability, the investigation of complaints against police connects most clearly to democratic principles since they respond to potential abuse of state power and the maintenance of trust and legitimacy. As is outlined further below, in the UK there has been a more recent development of strategies to promote opportunities for organisational learning (another of Jarvis’s categories) presented by the effective investigation of complaints.

A combination of civil and criminal legal routes provide formal mechanisms for remedies and restitutions following police misconduct, as is reviewed in this chapter. These can be considered as systems of accountability that offer high levels of external control, as delineated in Romzek and Dubnick’s (1987) typology of systems of accountability. Impressionistically, at least, it seems that the adequacy of these provisions is questioned in many liberal democratic societies.

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This chapter explores the impact that the increasing use of data and science have on policing in terms of the organisation and delivery of police responses to crime and crime prevention. The use of scientific evidence to develop improved policing services offers many advantages, especially in a period where demands on the public police are transformed by technological change, and resources available to meet new challenges have reduced in absolute terms. The use of science to promote EBP and the related but distinct development of ‘big data policing’ generally have not been thought of as means to control police discretion. Nonetheless, it is argued here that both provide powerful opportunities to reorient behaviour and practice, and their growing significance in contemporary policing means that is of vital importance to consider the implications that they have in terms of democratic accountability and public oversight. Both EBP and big data policing represent futures of policing that are difficult, although not necessarily impossible, to reconcile with established systems of ‘hard’ accountability outlined in the previous chapters of this book.

Unlike other recent shifts in police styles and practices – such as ‘hot spots’, ‘intelligence-led’ or ‘problem-oriented’ policing – EBP is best understood not as a model of delivery but as a strategy for improving effectiveness and efficiency. Drawing on the wider approaches to evidence-based policy within public administration, EBP offers the potential to transform established tradition, custom and practice in police work through the application of scientific research and evaluation. As is widely noted, police work has tended to be responsive in the sense that it is reactive to incidents once they have occurred, and organised around traditional models of patrol that are, to some extent, predicated on public demand for visible policing.

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That police officers have considerable discretion inherent to their role is at the centre of much of the sociology of policing, which is broadly focused on understanding insight into the discrepancies between the ‘law in books’ and the ‘law in practice’. It was noted in earlier chapters that the extent and nature of officer discretion are integral to policing since the application of the law to specific circumstances requires interpretation and the exercise of judgement in terms of identifying the preferred solution from the many potential interventions that might be made. Furthermore, as Reiner (2000: 169) argued, the application of the law to its full extent in all circumstances would be impractical, given that resources are always limited. In ethical and political terms too, the use of discretion is desirable and an established operational principle, such as when (as Scarman noted in his 1981 inquiry into the Brixton disorders) the full enforcement of the law would lead to public disorder. For these reasons, discretion is inherent and valuable in police work. The use of discretion is central to Lipsky’s (1980) characterisation of police officers as ‘street level bureaucrats’ exercising power as they make decisions that have significant implications for their fellow citizens. Nonetheless, there are clearly very many circumstances in which the abuse of police discretion occurs, and it is in that context that many of the measures outlined in this chapter have been developed as methods to ‘control the constable’ (Jefferson and Grimshaw 1984). Whether the exercise of discretion is considered negative abuse or the positive use of leniency, the central concern is that identified by Neyroud and Beckley (2001: 82), who noted that in the US in the 1970s ‘… the “discovery” of the true extent of police discretion provoked a heated debate about whether police officers were usurping quasi-judicial functions’.

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This chapter considers how and why trust relations may be changing in the illustrative context of new forms of governance in the UK — presenting in the process a theoretical framework for explaining different forms of trust relations. Trust is believed to be particularly salient to the provision of healthcare because it is characterised by uncertainty and an element of risk regarding the competence and intentions of the practitioner on whom the patient is reliant. In the UK National Health Service (NHS), trust has traditionally played an important part in the relationship between its three key actors: the state, healthcare practitioners and patients and the public.

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