(1) The police are the officers of the state who have the task of the investigation of crime. Indeed, they see it as central to their job, even though, in reality, non-investigative work takes up most of their time.
(2) In carrying out this work, the police have a great deal of discretion. The basic powers of a police officer arise from the status of the office constable, and this means that the police officer does not simply act as directed like a normal employee. In addition, the task in hand also lends itself to the exercise of discretion. Though the police are expected to investigate crime, not every crime which is detected is expected to result in formal action. In addition, a basic function of the police is to keep the peace, which again requires sensitivity and common sense rather than legalistic intervention at all times.
(3) When investigating crime, the main choice of strategies has been presented as between reactive and proactive policing
- The reactive approach involves the police in responding to public calls for help. It has the advantages that the police operate openly and in response to real public demand and with the consent of the public. When not answering calls, the police are expected to be patrolling openly to deter wrongdoing. The police have traditionally approached policing in this way, and it is important to realise that most crime is reported by, and detected on the basis of information from, members of the public. The police are heavily dependent on public cooperation - it is far more important than any legal powers to detect crime. But it has been pointed out that the strategy, especially patrolling, is very inefficient - the police rarely bump into criminals who are on their way home from a burglary.
- The proactive approach involves building up pictures of threats to the peace and potential criminality through the targeting of potential criminals and the surveillance of them. Intelligence is vital so that threats can be identified and appropriate counter-measures taken. But this information may or may not come from the general public. Rather, this form of policing tends to involve specialist squads (eg drugs and fraud squads) who are reliant on the analysis of crime patterns and information from informants. The dangers with this form of policings are that it is secretive and so less accountable and that the targets will be selected out of prejudice.
In reality, both forms of policing are practiced at the same time and there is a compromise between them. On the one hand, patrolling and reactive policing is felt to have limited impact against serious or professional crime which must be the target of proactive policing. On the other hand, public tranquility and reassurance are important goals which can be addressed by startegies such as visible patrols. This duality of objectives is reflected in the key national objectives set for the police by the Home Office. The Home Secretary's key objectives for policing concentrate on the major issues which are of concern to the public. The key objectives for 1998-99 are:
- to deal speedily and effectively with young offenders and to work with other agencies to reduce re-offending;
- to target and reduce local problems of crime and disorder in partnership with local authorities, other local agencies and
- the public;
- to target drug-related crime in partnership with other local agencies;
- to maintain and, if possible, increase the number of detections for violent crime;
- to increase the number of detections for burglaries of people's homes;
- to respond promptly to emergency calls from the public.
See Home Office Statement of Purpose and Aims
(4) Reflecting the broad duties of the constable, the original powers of a constable to keep the peace and to act against crime were seen as no more than those of a private citizen. The constable was a "citizen in uniform" with no special powers and no special immunities. This picture was never 100% accurate, and the increasing professionalisation of the police prompted calls for more formal powers to intervene. The issue was considered in depth by the Philips Royal Commission (Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, Cmnd. 8092, 1981), following which the polices powers have been set out in two main legislative sources: the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and the Public Order Act 1986. As a result, the police are now a specialised agency distinct from ordinary citizens. In granting these powers, the Philips Commission applied three important tests, which should always be considered when assessing either existing police powers or the possible grant of further powers:
- are the powers open? This means that whatever police powers exist, they should be clear and understandable
- are the powers workable? Police powers must be designed so that the police can carry out the tasks assigned to them lawfully and without resport to unlawful or socially unacceptable tactics.
- are the powers fair? This has two aspects. From the individuals point of view, if a person has a legal right, fairness means it should be exercisable and respected. fairness to the police means that they should be able to do their jobs in a way which takes account of the rights on individuals, so that they are not unknowingly or necessarily infringed.
Of course, these tests do not tell us all the answers. The criteria conflict to some extent and terms such as fairness and rights are themsleves rather vague. But they are very helpful ways of looking at police powers and have been influential.
(5) The powers of the police can be categorised as:
For Research and commentaries on police-related matters see Home Office Police Research Group
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