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Context of Police Accountability

Info: 5026 words (20 pages) Law Essay
Published: 8th Oct 2019

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Jurisdiction(s): UK Law

The people of the societies expect the best out of the services of the policemen. The societies have conferred upon the police powers which are not conferred upon ordinary individuals in the community. In any democratic society based on the rule of law and responsible government, it is fundamental that police independence should be balanced with accountability. Accountability in definition would constitute by holding police responsible for what they do, organizationally and/or individually, by observing their policies and practices and what they claim authority to do as things that should be open to enquiry and that they should be prepared to justify [1] .

This case will be analyzed in two separate parts in the context of police accountability. Firstly, to whom the police are answerable for their actions? On the other hand, what extent would current arrangements hold the police feasible to the societies for their actions?


Accountability implies some form of explanation and justification, more to a public one [2] . It does not signify direction or be in command of with operational procedures are decided by some outside body [3] . Control of day-to-day operations rests firmly with the Chief Constable, although he is subject to scrutiny and influence by the Home Office and the government [3] . This is an obvious span of police accountability, through both formal and informal channels. It is further important to consider the main areas of accountability prior to discussing details of the arguments as to whom the police are accountable. Principally, I would highlight the operational [5] aspects of accountability. Though, short outlines of other issues will also be mentioned to better understand of the arguments of police accountability.

Fields of accountability

There are three main areas of accountability to be considered within most policing organizations which are: a) Financial; b) Personal and c) Operational [5] . All of them are to some extent the responsibility of the Chief Officer of Police. If there is some degree of police independence, then, given the hierarchic nature of police organizations, this translates into a great deal of personal independence for the Chief Officer in the governance of the organization, and therefore personal responsibility for any perceived failings in the organization [6] .

*) Financial:

Financial accountability of police to the Home Office (on behalf of the government) is not particularly controversial [7] : since the escalating costs of policing are recognized within the organization, it is right for police personnel to show how the money is spent [8] . Police services have large capital resources to direct. What does cause problems is trying to fit policing outcomes into the sort of profit and loss balance sheet to which accountants are accustomed. For example, the principles of effective management of these are perhaps not vastly different from the principles of any business, which would rely on for getting the best value for money from its shops, factories, warehouses and vehicles.

Police services are now subject to much more harsh financial accountability than they have been in the past. The purpose of this accountability has also changed: although the police service is still accountable to its police authority, the police authority is no longer a part of local government but a separate entity [9] . Although the chief officer prepares the budget, this requires the police authority’s agreement, but it is the Home Office which determines the aggregate grant. In a subtle but important shift of emphasis is that police are now more financially accountable to the Home Office than before, and less financially accountable to local government [9] .

Accidents arise when the Home Office use financial control to exercise operational control, but these are averted if police are not operationally accountable to the funding body but to a different body or through different measures. The Home Office controlling funding can facilitate its chosen policing schemes are enforced if police are not operationally accountable to any body other than that Home Office [1] 0.

*) Personal:

Personal accountability concerns the way an individual police officer behaves in carrying out police duty. Individual officers would be, without a structural hierarchy, accountable for many of their activities to officers senior to them: ultimately, all officers answer to the chief officer of police for their actions. With a chief officer’s independence of command of the police comes responsibility for the police organization as a whole, and ultimately accountability for it to the public: an important aspect, therefore, of police accountability is the appointment and dismissal processes pertaining to the chief officer.

Furthermore, this accountability requirement is answered by having in place an acceptable system of recording and investigating complaints made against individual police officers and an effective restraint system when misconduct can be proven [1] 2.

However, to claim that the behaviour of individual officers is solely a matter of personal accountability is in many aspects too simplistic, as a sample of particular behaviour may signal some common problems within the police service itself. If a large number of allegations of particular types of misbehaviour are received against a number of officers, then this suggests a problem for the force itself, rather than the presence of a minority of miscreant individuals [1] 3.

*) Operational:

Operational accountability covers a multitude of decisions concerning policy and strategic planning at organizational level, and operations carried out at local or station level [1] 4. The chief officer is liable to the police authority directly for the operational implementation of policing priorities, also answerable to the Home Office for implementation of national directives concerning policing priorities, and to the Inspectorate for overall efficiency of policing [1] 5. Superimposed on this is the legal requirement of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984 [1] 6 for divisional commanders to establish community consultative committees and to be held accountable to them for local policing needs, and of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 [1] 7 for the local police commander to work with the chief executive officer of the local authority to develop and implement a crime and disorder strategy. There is clearly a possible problem for the development of policing plans, if the priorities are recognized by the Home Office, Police Authority and local community consultative committees are different, or are in actual conflict, or if there are insufficient funds available to address them all acceptably, which is quite feasible.

Police accountability to the law

Robert Mark [1] 8 described British police accountability is that ‘The fact that the British police are accountable to the law, that we act on behalf of the community and are not under the responsibility of government, makes us the least powerful, the most accountable and therefore the most acceptable police in the world’. This illustrates the central function or role played in official principles by the perception of police accountability to the law.

Therefore, police are in charge only to the law in gratifying their legal duty to advocate the law. This duty requires for the individual constable is to settle on in particular instances whether there has been a legal infraction and to take steps accordingly [1] 9. The chief constable, being responsible for upholding the law generally in his or her area, must in addition take steps using the force which is under his ‘direction and control’ (s 5(1), Police Act, 1964), to fulfil this broader duty.

With regards to the constable’s duty [2] 0, if she/he fails in some part of her/his duty, the instruments available to call her/him to account are:

the discipline code-the international force regulations, prescribing proper action, available to senior officers and the new codes of practice issued under (PACE) 1984;

the courts [2] 1-since constables have no special exemption from private actions or tort law or from the criminal law (which also provides criminal sanctions for avoid duties); and since the judiciary have a discretion to reject evidence that adversely affects the ‘fairness of the proceedings’ (s 78 PACE, 1984);

The complaints procedure-which provides for individual complaints which chief constables must investigate and the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) oversee [2] 2.

In short, a constable must enforce the law when particular infractions come to beam, and is accountable to the law, supervising officers and a public complaints procedure [2] 3. Furthermore, she/he should have sound awareness of the law and of her/his powers under it. She/he needs adequate discretion to do her/his job well, but at the same time to be monitored in her/his adherence to the law and to have any errors rectified and abuses punished. It is important for the integrity of the constable in the societies she/he serves that all this should not only be the case but that it should also be seen to be the case [2] 4.

Due to the Chief constable’s duty, if she/he fails in some part of her/his duty, the instruments available to call her/him to account (in addition to the law) are the police authority and the Home Secretary. Their responsibilities and powers, as well as those of the Chief Constable, the third element in the tripartite structure of accountability, are largely laid down in the Police Act 1964.

However, police authorities (bodies composed of two-thirds councillors and one-third magistrates in the provinces and, in the Metropolitan Police District (MPD), the Home Secretary acting alone) must, for provide an ‘adequate and efficient’ force(s 4 (A)), keep themselves informed about how complaints are being dealt with, make arrangements for local consultation over policing (s 100, PACE, 1984) and can require the chief constable to submit a written report. They can further assign and discipline senior ranks (Chief Constable, Deputy Chief Constable, Assistant Chief Constables), and call for the retirement of senior ranks ‘in the interests of efficiency’ (s 5 (4)). Each of these powers is effectively subject matter to the Home Secretary’s approval: because there are grounds for refusing a request for a report and the Home Secretary is the final negotiator; because he is the appellate authority in discipline cases; and because schedules and retirements are subject to his approval.

The Home Secretary is required to implement his power ‘to promote the efficiency of the police’ (s 28) and, in addition to supervising the use by police authorities of their powers are:

Withhold the central grant (51 per cent) to any force judged incompetently;

Require a police authority to call for the retirement of its chief constable [2] 5 ‘in the interests of efficiency’ (s 29 (1));

Claim reports from chief constables (s 30 (1));

Institute local inquiries into policing (s 32 (1));

Make rules concerning pay, conditions and discipline (s 33); and concerning the constitution and proceedings of the various bodies signifying the interests of members of police forces (s 44 (3));

Determine the size of the inspectorate, who must conduct inspection of all forces (except the MPD; though the Met, consented to be inspected towards the end of 1987 ) and report on their efficiency;

Provide and maintain a range of relevant central support and research services;

Direct a chief constable to provide mutual aid (s 14 (2)) and determine the allocation of costs in the event of disagreements between the aided and the aiding police authority (s 14 (4)).

Moreover, a chief constable must take steps to deal generally with law breaking in her/his area, and is accountable to the law, a police authority and the Home Secretary. A police authority’s ability to sanction is eventually dependent on Home Secretary’s approval; the latter’s instruments of ‘control’ are financial and removal from office [2] 6.

To what extent police are accountable to the community

It is one thing to claim that police are accountable to the communities that they serve, and that communities can be identified through its legal, political, and cultural traditions if their services are broadly conceived. Moreover, to specify what extent the current arrangements enable the police properly to account to the community for their actions [2] 7. Like most practical questions, there are certain general observations and constraints that can inform detailed responses and that are likely to possess some reasonably abiding relevance.

Demanding Accountability

Although the community can rightly demand that police to be accountable for what they do, that demand must not to come simply as an externally imposed obligation, but as an expectation that police officers will also have of themselves [2] 7. Police are, after all, members of the very community that properly holds them to account. Police ought to be accountable for what they do out of an internal commitment to the ends of policing, and not simply as the product of outwardly imposed mechanisms of investigation and control. In an ideal world, the police would know and provide the service expected of them. But then, in an ideal world police would probably not be necessary. In a non-ideal world, exterior mechanisms may be necessary to foster such inner commitment or to supplement it when internal mechanisms are insufficient.

The current arrangements of accountability

Individual police officers are held accountable to the community for their actions. Firstly, they are accountable to their supervising officers through the rank structure. Secondly, they are answerable to the courts for the way they exercise their powers in those cases which result in a prosecution, and they may also be subject to civil or criminal court proceedings. Finally, they are answerable to the community through a system for recording and investigating complaints made against police by members of the community. The most important part of legislation holding individual police officers to account is the (PACE) 1984 [2] 8. The Act establishes a process by which a member of the public who is aggrieved by any aspect of an interaction with a police officer can have that interaction examined and independently assessed and guarantees the transparency and neutrality of the procedure by exterior monitoring of it by the (PCA).

Sometimes complaints made against police officers are fairly minor, for example, those involving in rudeness or high-handed behaviour which does not amount to aggression, and the person making the complaint will be satisfied with an excuse or explanation [2] 9. In such cases, the Act allows an inspector to make an unofficial or informal investigation, and resolve the matter in a way which satisfies the petitioner is acceptable to the officer concerned, and maintains the reputation of the police. On the contrary, it can raise a real public fear that complaints against police are not taken seriously, and that serious matters are covered up by internal investigation. Therefore, Public confidence only can increase when the police complaints system provides for an external body to direct an investigation or to reassess the facts and conclusions drawn by police investigators, especially when this body is one which has both the power and the will to carry out a neutral review, and order a re-investigation if necessary.

However, PACE [3] 0 first opened up control of the police to the community of the individuals, who were most affected by police. This Act required every Chief Superintendent to establish a consultative committee for the area, and every interest group was entitled to seek representation on the committee. This changed the operational accountability of police, bringing it to a local level, and spreading it across all ethnic and income groups, reducing the power of the traditional oligarchy. The first ten years of this Act’s operation may well come to be seen as the effective procedure of the local accountability of police, since during the 1990s a number of reports and reviews into policing indicated an insidious shift of control, largely through demands for financial justification of policing strategies, and the Police and Magistrates Courts Act 1994 further shifted decision-making towards the Home Office.

Accountability monitored by the media:

Actions like filing complaints or lawsuits induce accountability, but few individuals in the community challenge police actions directly, only when they are most badly harmed. For most of the time, monitoring police accountability simply requires that individuals are aware of the quality of police performance in the communities that they are competent to evaluate it and that they urge scrupulous police adherence to high public service standards. However, this monitoring is not possible without the aid of a powerful private institution: the media [3] 1.

The checking function out of the requirements is that there is an institution which is well controlled and powerful as the government to serve as its counterforce; on the local level, the media are often the only institution that meets this description. Furthermore, it is noted before individuals can check the police, they must know what the police department does, and why. Due to police accountability to the community, the checking function is important, but it is checking done by individuals after they have absorbed the product of a free press [3] 2. Ultimately, checking is done by the media as intermediaries, as carriers of information, not as political actors. The media alert individuals in the community to misconduct, and the individuals act on the information.

On the other hand, police believe that the media are over-critical. They consider themselves more visible and more vulnerable to media scrutiny and appear more often on the political agenda. The intrinsic drama in crime and police work makes it much more attractive to newspapers than the work of the social services. Robert Mark complained in 1974 that the police were ‘the most abused the most unfairly criticised and the most unspoken minority in this country’, which is very true in Bangladesh. But most of the time the press are willing allies in the law-and-order discourse-that is, the assumptions about the ‘problems’ of crime, about who represents the ‘dangerous classes’ about ‘proper’ sanctions.

Stuart Hall’s analysis of the press coverage of the ‘mugging’ panic of 1973-4 is a compelling illustration of co-operation between police, press, and judges in the manufacture of a crime wave (despite the flimsy statistical basis), of the image of the unsafe streets, of the stereotype of the young black mugger (ignoring the preceding disastrous breakdown of police relationships with black communities), and of the call for stiff, deterrent sentences. This instance illustrates the limits of newspaper coverage: the media have no formal status, their methods of acquiring evidence and their type of approach can be easily attacked, and the police are under no obligation to answer press questions.

Barriers to the accountability

Firstly, PACE did not establish being completely independent PCA- certainly gives the protection to the police in terms of rights to representation and appeal is long overdue [3] 3. But there is more doubt about its effect on the low level of substantiated complaints-nineteen complaints out of twenty is regarded as unsubstantiated. One problem is always that of evidence and as in all professions the police ranks close when a member is threatened. It is hard to find officers to testify against their colleagues.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Khan v. UK [3] 4 , determined that the PCA is insufficiently independent from the police and does not provide an effective remedy to police misconduct as required under Article 13 of the Convention. However, the jurisprudence of the European Convention on Human Rights goes much further than this and requires contracting states meet their negative and positive obligations to both refrain from interfering with individual rights and ensure that effective measures are in place to protect them [3] 5.

Secondly, the Chief Constable, whose role as one of impartial law enforcement, is appointed by the politicians through selection process. Such selectivity makes policies of law enforcement political decisions, and a Chief Constable a political decision-maker, determining police tasks in the community.

Impartial accountability to the community

Generally speaking, the requirements of accountability appear to be met. Giving both the constable and his or her chief an independent responsibility for their respective law enforcement actions in the community appears to meet the requirement of impartiality, and the law itself is the check against abuses. Other abuses- inefficient or unacceptable actions- can be dealt with by the other checks operative at each level: the individual constable is kept accountable through regulations and instructions outlining efficient and acceptable practices and a vigilant, ‘complaining’ public; and his or her chief through a local and a central political authority and both, in different ways, responsible for ensuring ‘efficiency’ and public acceptability. The three demands- for impartiality, efficiency and consent-have been met; and law enforcement decisions at both levels have been insulated from ‘interference’ by political authorities. The question therefore is to what extent this system would enable police to account to the communities for their actions, although it appears to guarantee (and to be the only system that can guarantee) the bed rock of police work: impartial law enforcement.

Ultimately, the community needs to know that the police officers who are violent, corrupt, visibly racist, or allow personal biasness are to result in grossly unfair treatment to the community, will no longer be permitted to remain in its police service. It is clearly wrong for the community to be policed by fear and fraud, so it is equally wrong for police themselves to be policed in this way.


The first part of the analysis has examined one traditional liberal appeal that police would only be accountable to ‘the rule of law’, and to the police officer’s role as an officer of the law. Law, it is said, stands above the closely political and devotee interests of a community, and constitutes its in progress collective public will. The officer is a servant of that law. Thus a police officer’s roles and responsibilities are constrained by the law and are to some extent persistent on its enforcement. In English policing, some such understanding has been legally affirmed and is now part of a constable’s oath of office. It helps to explain the extreme position taken by a former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir David McNee (1977-82):

The political neutrality of the police service and the political independence and impartiality of chief police officers is central to the British policing system. I personally focus on it as so important that I no longer exercise my right to vote, nor have I since I was appointed a chief officer of police. Police officers must be men and women of the middle, bound only by the rule of law.

It has further analysed the issue of police accountability to the community in general terms, setting out the parameters of the ways in which a police service can be held accountable to the community by imposing different accountability mechanisms for different aspects of policing. This complex but comprehensive system of accountability allows the community to remain in control of its police, while not vesting this control in one or two specific powerful bodies within the community. Naturally, the most popular accountability mechanism to the community in order to hold police responsible for their actions is an effective procedure for complaints.

Individuals in the communities therefore can hold officers directly and immediately accountable for their actions. Officers know they will be forced to answer personally for whatever they do. They cannot hide their identity by putting tape over their name badges and nametags. Appropriate and specific departmental policies and procedures, as well as performance evaluations and precise job descriptions will go a long way in helping police officers be accountable. But in the final analysis, the key will be whether there is close interaction between police officers and individuals to identify those officers who are misbehaving and compliment those who are performing well. Both the formal departmental structure and continual individual input and feedback are necessary for an effective accountability system.

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