Consent Matters: Does this apply to Policing?

By Aaron Newton: Political Columnist

Every time protests and public disorder roll into the news, the topic of ‘policing by consent’ is dragged up by ageing columnists and the usual suspects in the pub pining for the good ol’ days of political incorrectness; a time where a group of policeman could give a protester a whack and be on their merry way. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your viewpoint), policing is a little different in 2020 Blighty. The principles of ‘policing by consent’ are periodically tested and have been stuck with for better or worse. It seems, however, that the tide may be turning against it following the lockdown of COVID-19 and in the light of ongoing global Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. 

Police Cars, as seen in the USA

The core tenets of the consent are nine-fold. They are generally what you would expect and do what they say on the tin: prevent crime and disorder rather than “repression by military force”, maintain a standard of relationship with the public conducive to co-operation. It draws some parallels to the Afghanistan military campaign of “winning hearts and minds”.

93.1% ‘White’ compared to a national population average of 86%.

Two, in particular, are most relevant when measuring the existence of such guidelines: the absence of crime is the efficacy test, and “the police are the public, and the public are police”. The former reinforces this style as the way forward when backed up by statistics. The latest ONS report for levels of crime in England and Wales in 2019 estimates a decrease of 5%, despite stabbings and murders on the rise. Crime it seems, while getting more up-close and personal with hands-off policing, is decreasing. Given the lowest numbers of police officers since the early 1980’s, that’s chalked up as a win.

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The latter paints a picture of the ‘Thin Blue Line’, and it’s one that is decidedly Caucasian. The police service, according to the most recent figures, is 93.1% ‘White’ compared to a national population average of 86%. ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ categories are both underrepresented by two or three times their national average. It begs the question, especially given that Minneapolis has defunded its entire police department in the wake of the George Floyd killing, does the police reflect the public it serves? By that same line of thought, a police service which does not accurately represent its community has its consent invalidated by its own rules of consent.

The alternatives to policing by consent have consequences we see in the news every day from the other side of the Atlantic. It is impossible to turn on a TV or see a newspaper without being bombarded with reports of brutality and wrongful misdeeds by a police service. This form of policing is common across the globe: unless you are in Europe (with the exception of France) or a commonwealth Australasian nation, chances are if you get into bother with the local police you may be in a bit more trouble than you’re used to. 

While the pandemic and protests have put a spotlight onto British policing, the alternative may be not worth the change come peacetime. What is better, the devil you know or the one you don’t?

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