Last month the Committee on Standards in Public Life published their report ‘Tone from the top: leadership, ethics and accountability’.
Alongside the report the Committee also published new research on public understanding of police accountability, which was reflected on throughout the inquiry and report. The research was based on a representative survey of over 1000 members of the public and analysed by Chris Prosser from the University of Oxford.
Chris Prosser provides a summary of the findings and his analysis of the key points to be drawn from the research:
Who knows what about policing accountability?
The Committee’s research - conducted by Ipsos MORI - asked over 1000 members of the public what they knew about local policing accountability. Through a series of structured questions, it was found that, in general, respondents had a pretty positive perception of the standards of conduct of the police – the majority thought senior police officers could be trusted to tell the truth and felt that the police are held to account for their actions. People also largely thought that police deal with the crime and anti—social behaviour issues that matter. Positive stuff.
However we also learned that despite being generally happy with the conduct of police and saying that the police are held to account, many people asked were unclear who to complain to about problems with local policing and thought that local people did not have a say in how the police spent their time and budget.
Knowledge of the new police accountability framework also offers a very mixed picture. Over two-thirds of those asked said they had heard of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), but the majority of respondents did not know that PCCs were elected. Only 15% of respondents said they had heard of local Police and Crime Panels, and most respondents did not know how they were appointed.
Low levels of knowledge about the new accountability framework reflected wider disengagement with the police accountability process: most people said they were not interested in finding out about policing issues in their local area, and more respondents were not interested in the work of PCCs or local police and crime panels than were interested.
Not all respondents were equally knowledgeable or engaged with the police accountability framework. Older respondents, those with higher levels of education and those in higher social grades were all more knowledgeable about and interested in police accountability. Non-white respondents were less knowledgeable about the police accountability framework but they were more interested in police accountability issues than white respondents.
Differences in knowledge of the police accountability framework did not have much of an impact on people’s attitudes towards police accountability. Those who had not heard of PCCs were just as likely as those that had to think that the police were held to account for their actions and were focusing on the policing issues that matter in their local area. Those who had heard of PCCs were equally as likely to think that local people did not have a say in policing issues as those that had not heard of them. The one difference that did emerge is that people who had heard of PCCs were more likely to say it was clear who to complain to if they had a problem with local policing.
Although the generally positive impression of policing is good news for the police, to the extent that they are based on the interest and engagement of the public the results of the survey are clearly problematic for the new police accountability framework. If the new model of police accountability works adequately only if the public knows about it, understands it and engages with it, the evidence here suggests that for the time being at least, it is not working.
It remains to be seen whether Police and Crime Commissioners will be able to rise to the difficult task of engaging a public who think that things are largely fine as they are and who think that crime and policing is not one of their most pressing local issues.
Chris Prosser is a political scientist based at the University of Manchester, where he is a Research Associate on the British Election Study. He is also in the final stages of his DPhil in Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations and St Catherine’s College, at the University of Oxford.