The police and the investigation of crime

(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

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:

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 police’s 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:

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

Last Updated October 1998

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