Thursday 16 April 2009

Is this the inquiry we need?

It is good news that Paul Stephenson, head of the Metropolitan police, has asked the new Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Denis O'Connor, to undertake a review of the police tactics at the G20 protests.

It is good news, and I very much hope that good will come of it.

So why do I feel dissatified with this announced inquiry?

I have two concerns. First: Is the investigation structured so that its independence is not in doubt? Second: Does the investigation have the right scope?

Starting with the first question, Duncan Campbell has drawn our attention to the fact that Denis O'Connor has a long background in the very police force, the Met, which he is now being called on to investigate.

A quick look at the Home Office website tells us that Denis O'Connor began his policing career as a constable in the Metropolitan police force in 1968. He left in 1970 but rejoined the Met as a graduate in 1974 and 'rose steadily through the ranks'. After a spell as a superintendent with the Surrey police from 1985, he rejoined the Metropolitan police in 1988 as a chief superintendent, rising to the rank of commander. He left in 2000 to become Chief Constable of Surrey police. He joined Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2004 and became Chief Inspector at HMIC in March of this year. So of the 36 years he has spent in police-related work, he has spent 25 years in the Metropolitan police.

Now, to be clear, I do not wish or intend to impugn the character and ability of Denis O'Connor, or cast doubt on his personal integrity. I am sure he is an honourable man and that he will do the job he has been set to the best of his abilities.

Nevertheless, can it really be good practice to ask someone with such a long history at the Met to investigate its actions? I doubt that in many other contexts we would be happy with an independent investigation into an organization - an organization that is clearly functioning quite poorly in an important area of its work - being carried out by someone with so much history in the organization itself. Would Ed Balls be happy if the inspectors sent in to evaluate a school turned out be ex-teachers who had spent most of their working life in the school? Regardless of the character and virtue of particular individuals, this is, in general, a bad way to do things. Isn't this obvious? Am I missing something?

There is another, perhaps more fundamental problem.

The underlying issue here - an issue raised both by the policing of the G20 protests and the recent preemptive arrests of environmental campaigners at Ratcliffe-on-Soar - is that of how a democratic society best strikes a balance between public order and freedom to protest. This issue raises questions both about how the police should use the powers they have under the law, but also prior questions about the kind of powers that the police ought to have. While Denis O'Connor is a position to examine the first sort of question, I am not sure his office is the appropriate place to consider - or, at least, to answer authoritatively - questions of the second kind, questions that we do urgently need to examine.

What this suggests is the need for another, very different kind of investigation, in addition to the one that HMIC will carry out. We need an invesitgation that is completely independent of the whole machinery of the police, one which draws on the expertise of people like Denis O'Connor, but which is led by, say, our elected representatives, who can call witnesses with a range of expertises.

A job for the Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights? Or for a Royal Commission on freedom of protest? Suggestions please - and soon!

Postscript: for anyone wishing to explore further the issues around civil disobedience I raised in an earlier post, I recommend this excellent article by the excellent David Howarth.

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