Misuse of authority: Are the police taking the law into their own hands?
We came across two disparate articles with significant similarities today. The first, George Monbiot’s comment in the Guardian, reels off a list of examples of British police apparently manipulating the law to suit their own ends. The killings of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson are the two most high-profile cases, although there are numerous others. The second piece, from the US, details the creeping spread of police requests for private internet information from service providers such as AOL and Facebook.
The individual concerns are bad enough. For police to be invading our privacy, or giving what appear to be deliberately false statements during the course of enquiries, poses serious questions about their integrity. Even more worryingly is the impact these alleged breaches have upon the overall reputation of the police force.
In a democracy, the authority of the police depends upon the public’s perception of their trustworthiness. If that perception is destroyed, we pave the way for lawlessness and/or authoritarianism. In order to accept policing, we simply must believe that the police are basically public servants, that their remit is to uphold the common good, and that they will be held to account — like any other citizen — if they err in judgement.
Once that condition has been breached, the rule of law loses legitimacy, a condition we’re already noticing with protests against the public sector cuts imposed by our Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. In particular, many people who voted for the Liberal Democrats are frustrated by the direction of legislation. If we also lose trust in the police, the stage is set for widespread clashes between citizens and authorities.
The model of policing to which we adhere to in Britain is policing by consent. The authority of the police resides, ultimately, in those who are policed. Right now, we’re on a slippery slope where it appears that some elements within the police force may be assuming the authority to twist the law for their own ends rather than holding it as an instrument of the public good.
George Monbiot suggests that anyone in the employ of the police who is found to have made a false statement be discharged from their post. Certainly, the government needs to recognise how dangerously close both it and the police are to losing their grip on legitimacy, and to act accordingly.
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