Why outside candidates may help us defeat crime

Article from The Times

The police enforce the law. That power brings great responsibility. The British way is for that power to be exercised through policing by consent.

That consent is even more important in the context of Britain's diverse society. August's riots underlined the importance of building and keeping trust in policing. We saw how much communities rely on the police and, as people came together in the clear-up, we saw active consent and public participation helping the police to restore and maintain law and order.

To fight crime successfully, the law needs to be applied even-handedly and with real understanding of the needs of all our communities. Equality - always important - is particularly vital for policing.

Over the past decade forces have made great strides, with more women and more members of ethnic minorities becoming officers. We have a strong legal framework that supports equality; links with communities are better. But there is a long way to go. We need new thinking and new approaches.

Fighting hate crime is a good example of where huge progress has been made, but where there is more to do - particularly in relation to people with disabilities. Hate crime has a severe effect on the individual, but the fear can affect whole communities. The more a force knows about the needs of its communities, the better it will be able to fight these crimes.

While numbers of female and ethnic-minority police officers have increased, there is more to be done if police forces are to reflect and fully understand the communities they serve. The challenge is particularly acute at the senior ranks: about 220 chief officers form the upper leadership of our police forces. Only 38 of them are women, and only three are from ethnic minorities. The top leadership of policing looks very different from the general public.

Police staff roles, including at senior levels, are already open to entrants from outside the service and many forces benefit from the fresh perspectives they bring. But currently the only way to become a police officer is to join as a constable. Only one career path for police officer positions means that the range of perspectives is limited. The female and ethnic minority officers who have joined over the past decade will not be in contention for chief officer posts until the 2020s.

We need police leaders with the operational skills and experience to take high-risk decisions and command police and public confidence. But if an outside candidate can offer something different, we should consider new ways of building the operational skills they need, including more effective fast-tracking of talent.

Tom Winsor is looking at the potential for entry at different ranks in his independent review of police terms and conditions. There is a range of views about these issues, but it is time to have a sensible debate.

Promoting equality and diversity in policing cannot be addressed by box-ticking - it requires a cultural change. These are not marginal issues, they are central to ensuring that police forces are equipped to fight crime effectively. We need police forces to be open to all and attractive to the best.

Nick Herbert is Minister for Policing; Chief Constable Stephen Otter leads for the Association of Chief Police Officers on equality and diversity

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12 September 2011

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