What are the consequences of police militarisation?
Ask a police officer what they have in common with solicitors and they may answer, “not a lot”. But they do. Both have a Code of Ethics, something which sets professions apart from other careers.
The solicitors’ Code of Conduct outlines the standards required of people in this branch of the legal profession. It defines “the fundamental ethical and professional standards that we expect of all firms and individuals (including owners who may not be lawyers) when providing legal services.” The rules are strictly enforced, and include the duties to act with integrity, uphold the rule of law, and act in the best interests of clients. Failure to do so can lead to disciplinary sanctions, including removal from the roll of solicitors.
The police have something similar: the College of Policing’s 2014 Code of Ethics. This is “a code of practice for the principles and standards of professional behaviour for the policing profession in England and Wales”. It applies to all officers, police staff, volunteers, and contractors. The Code of Ethics is grounded in Sir Robert Peel’s 9 Principles of Policing, which you can read more about here. Like the solicitors’ Code of Conduct, it sets “standards of professional behaviour”, such as the duty to act with honesty and integrity.
Police Code of Ethics
But what does this have to do with militarisation of the police? Read these two standards of professional behaviour from the Code of Ethics:
- Use of force
I will only use force as part of my role and responsibilities, and only to the extent that it is necessary, proportionate and reasonable in all the circumstances.
4.1 This standard is primarily intended for police officers who, on occasion, may need to use force in carrying out their duties.
4.2 Police staff, volunteers and contractors in particular operational roles (for example, custody-related) may also be required to use force in the course of their duties.
4.3 According to this standard you must use only the minimum amount of force necessary to achieve the required result.
4.4 You will have to account for any use of force, in other words justify it based upon your honestly held belief at the time that you used the force.
I will behave in a manner, whether on or off duty, which does not bring discredit on the police service or undermine public confidence in policing.
9.1 As a police officer, member of police staff or other person working for the police service, you must keep in mind at all times that the public expect you to maintain the highest standards of behaviour. You must, therefore, always think about how a member of the public may regard your behaviour, whether on or off duty.
9.2 You should ask yourself whether a particular decision, action or omission might result in members of the public losing trust and confidence in the policing profession.
9.3 It is recognised that the test of whether behaviour has brought discredit on policing is not solely about media coverage and public perception but has regard to all the circumstances.
These rules apply to all police professionals, not just front line officers. Chief Constables, who are responsible for force policies and equipment use, must weigh the need to protect their officers with their duties to the public. This is a difficult balancing act. As I explained when discussing spit hoods, there is pressure from all sides.
Fortunately for the police, the Code of Ethics promotes the National Decision Model (“NDM”). It is “the primary decision-making model for police in England and Wales. Individuals, supervisors and others use it to assess potential decisions or decisions that have already been made.”
It is an “inherently flexible” way of “making ethical decisions” and puts “the Code of Ethics at the centre of all decision making”.
Officers are expected “to apply the intent of the Code” to their decisions. But are they?
Is the National Decision Model Used?
As I pointed out in Part 2 of this blog post, Chief Constables have increasingly militarised the police.
In some areas it seems that the way some Chief Constables reviewed the Use of Force assessment and Powers and Policy in the National Decision Model is inadequate. These guidelines state that officers should assess the situation, including any specific threat, the risk of harm and the potential for benefits. “Decision makers” could also ask themselves “is there any research evidence?’, what options are open, and if the decision was “proportionate, legitimate, necessary and ethical”.
Look at the piecemeal roll out of spit hoods. Given that
- the Home Office has not tested or approved any models of spit hoods, set ethical standards for their use, or official training methods, and
- the West Midlands Police Force Medical Officer reported that the risk of infection from spittle is low
- in 2014 West Midlands Police’s Chief Constable refused to issue spit hoods after a thorough risk assessment, which is publicly available
I do not see how Chief Constables who issued spit hoods could say that their decisions were “reasonable in the circumstances facing them at the time”.
National Decision Model and Tasers
This poor-decision making can be seen on a day-to-day basis too. Consider how the police use Tasers. The Association of Chief Police Officers’ (“ACPO”) guidelines state that a police Taser should only be used “where they are facing violence or threats of violence of such severity that they would need to use force to protect the public, themselves or the subject.”
And, again, officers should be mindful of the Code of Ethics and the National Decision Model. Any force should be necessary, proportionate, and reasonable in all the circumstances.
Now watch the video of Judah Adunbi, the 63-year old race relations champion, being Tasered by Avon and Somerset police officers.
Mr Adunbi was questioned by police officers, then struggled to free himself. At 49 seconds in on the recording you will see one of the police officers shoot Mr Adunbi with her Taser while he is standing a few feet away from her, in a non-threatening stance. It appears that only after the “less-lethal” weapon has struck Mr Adunbi, incapacitating him, does she say “Taser, Taser, Taser”.
Could the officer have followed the National Decision Model and Code of Ethics to try to de-escalate the situation? If not, did she follow the official guidance and use the Taser only when she felt that the threat of violence was so severe that she needed to use force to protect herself?
What to do?
The consequences for the police and public of ignoring the Code of Ethics and National Decision Model are clear. They mean nothing if the police fail to follow them. Couple that with increased police militarisation and more people will be suffer miscarriages of justice, be injured, and in the worst cases, die. Public confidence in the police will be eroded, especially along racial lines, and the doctrine of “policing by consent” will cease to exist.
It’s time to get back to basics:
- Chief Constables could lead the way by re-affirming their commitment to the Code and National Decision Model. They could resist the temptation to further militarise the police and acquire more law enforcement technology without first applying rigorous, dispassionate analysis.
- Police Federation chiefs, who are police officers themselves, could also apply the model when considering the needs of their members. For example, they could seek data and examples before promoting spit hoods.
- All officers could seek better training, particularly in conflict resolution and how to de-escalate situations. This will be particularly important to the newly-minted armed officers. Our police forces could learn from the Japanese whose “response to violence is never violence- it is to de-escalate”.
The boys in blue may have turned into the boys in black but that doesn’t make Britain a war zone. Despite the recent terrorist attack in London the wider public have not become enemy combatants. Applying professional standards is vital if the police want to maintain public confidence and support. Officers have a duty to uphold these standards. It’s time they did.