The fall-out from “plebgate” continues. What originally looked like a simple story of political arrogance turns out to have complex layers of police misconduct and mismanagement. Over the weekend it was reported that the three Police Federation officers at the centre of the scandal will be summoned back to the House of Commons to apologise for their part in the affair or face criminal charges for contempt of parliament.
One thing that the political classes seem to agree on is that the police are experiencing a crisis of trust. Several police chiefs currently face separate investigations for serious misconduct. Then there is the policing of demonstrations and public order events – from Hillsborough through to the death of Mark Duggan and the riots of 2011 and the policing of the Occupy movement and the G20 demonstrations. Combine these events with the findings of the Leveson report and we have - it seems – a persuasive narrative of public trust in the police in decline. Calls are growing for a Royal Commission to put things right. Something “needs to be done”.
Certainly trust is vital to policing. If people do not trust police, they will not accept the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, they will not cooperate with police and criminal courts, they may even not comply with the law. This idea is central to “policing by consent”, the governing philosophy – or ideology – of policing in the UK.
What is less clear – and what our research calls into question – is whether this series of national causes célèbres has in fact penetrated people’s judgements of their police and is damaging the trust between public and the police on the street. The legitimacy of the police is influenced by many different factors and our research – and that of others – has consistently shown that, rather than drawing on high-profile media stories about the latest crisis in policing, people draw on the everyday, mundane encounters which make up the vast bulk of the interaction between officers and citizens.
For example in a recent study we interviewed more than 40,000 Londoners about their experience of - and trust in - the London Metropolitan Police. Strikingly, media stories about the police - during a period that included the MET being questioned over cost of the futile “cash for honours” investigation, MET internal racism allegations against Ian Blair, the opening of the trial for police misconduct in the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes (2005), G20 protest policing and the death of Ian Tomlinson after beating by police officers – were largely uncorrelated with people’s trust in local police officers.
Central instead were people’s day-to-day experiences of policing (and what they have heard about the experiences of friends and family) and their experiences of low-level crime, disorder and social cohesion in their communities. People look to the police to be a source of moral authority and to secure social order and control. When the local order seems frayed, they hold the police to account and withdraw trust and consent. When police officers seem not to wield their authority in fair, respectful and neutral ways, people question their right to power.
One political consequence of plebgate is an increased interest in police officers wearing body-worn video cameras. The decision to trial this technology follows a call for cameras by Tory grandee David Davis who said that there is a crisis of trust in policing in Britain. If one impetus to explore body-worn-video cameras is the strong link between public encounters with the police and public trust, then it certainly accords with the available evidence.
But we should sound a note of caution: the relationship between the presence of cameras and trust and confidence is likely to be complex. Crucially, how people react to the cameras may itself be shaped by their prior levels of trust in the police. If people trust the police they may see the cameras not as an intrusive invasion of their privacy or a cynical tool for the police to cover their backs, but rather as a mutually beneficial tool of accountability.
In the US a study in Rialto, California pointed towards decreasing incidents of use of force by officers and a vastly lower level of complaints against officers when they carried the device. This has led to a decision by a New York District Court mandating the use of such cameras to monitor stop and search procedures.
But this could be problematic if efforts to introduce such technologies are driven by a focus on incidents where policing has gone wrong as opposed to aiming to increase the quality of everyday encounters. The danger is that, in a response to police scandals, we reach for technical solutions that allow ever closer monitoring and micro management: namely, the monitoring of both the police and the public. Body-worn video may focus officers’ minds on not having gross misconduct recorded – and it is hard to see how constantly having to think: “How does this incident look when reviewed by supervisors, courts and the public?” makes officers more attentive to the person in front of them, during the many situations where misconduct is not a concern.
As an abstract idea the public may like the police to be closely monitored; it is less certain whether the sentiment about body-worn video is the same when they are the ones being filmed by an officer, especially when feeling vulnerable after a crime.
The medium of video may be problematic in itself, particularly if it is seen as giving a sense of objectivity that it cannot necessarily deliver. Video can be recorded with the intention of portraying events in a certain way at the moment of recording; recordings can be edited afterwards; they need to be interpreted when retrieved. And the interpretation of recorded actions is at least in part a function of our social positioning and preconceived conceptions.
So while the use of body-worn video may provide more evidence for the public to assess police legitimacy, that evidence is likely to be interpreted differently depending on who is doing the interpreting.
The idea of a decline in trust and legitimacy has a long pedigree in the UK. Concerns about declining respect for the police were raised by the 1929 Royal Commission on the police, as well as by its counterpart in 1962. Yet, despite this long-standing concern and current emphasis on threats to police-public relations generated by plebgate and other scandals, trust and confidence in the police has, on most accounts, been increasing since the early years of the new millennium – and, in any case, never fell to quite the low levels that are sometimes suggested. It is worth bearing this in mind when considering the latest claim about the collapse in public trust.
And, of course, we do not need to rely on the idea that they damage public trust to conclude that events such as plebgate, or the phone-hacking scandal, are damaging to the moral credibility of police.