What should the New Met Commissioner Do?
by Ben Rogers
An American friend living in London recently asked me who would appoint the new Met Commissioner. He was delighted to hear that the rules were unwritten and somewhat unclear – ‘How quaint! How English’. Quite how unclear the rules are is becoming ever more evident, with Boris insisting on interviewing all four candidates for the job, rather than the two favoured by the MPA, and both he and the Home Secretary acting as if the position was ultimately in the their gift.
But what should the new Commissioner read when he (it almost certainly will be a he) is eventually appointed? He could do a lot worse than start with an obscure and semi-technical report published this summer - Trust in justice: why it is important for criminal policy, and how it can be measured, the culmination of a pan-European inquiry led by Professor Mike Hough, of Birkbeck College.
This report builds on a growing body of research that underscores the importance of fairness in securing people’s compliance with the law. Hough argues against ‘penal populism’ - a view that the police ‘can’t be too tough’ and need to focus single-mindedly on cracking down on crime at almost any cost, or ‘zero tolerance’.
By contrast Hough and colleagues argue that fairness in decision making and fairness of treatment aren’t only, errr, fairer, but more effective. Their argument can be seen as an illustration of what John Kay has called the principle of obliquity. The best way of achieving something is often not to aim directly for it. (Just as people who don’t think too much about their happiness are often happier than people who do, just as companies that aim to provide an excellent product or service tend to do better than those that focus single-mindedly on profit, so police forces that focus on fair treatment will actually be more effective than those that focus on maximizing arrests).
The findings on which the fairness framework rests are strong and often counter-intuitive. Tom Tyler – perhaps the leading US exponent of the framework – has shown for instance that the process of being stopped and questioned or searched by the police can actually boost a person’s trust in the police, if they feel that they have been treated fairly and politely. Likewise Tyler points to research that shows that the best predictor of people’s satisfaction with a decision-making process is not whether it goes for or against them but whether they deem it fair.
The work of Tyler, Hough and others offers interesting insights into the riots. It’s striking that these riots were ignited, like so many others, by a perceived police injustice of little ‘immediate’ relevance to the local community – the killing of Mark Duggan, and more importantly, the impression that the police and the Independent Complaints Commission gave that they were at best not taking this seriously. From a strictly economic or behavioural point of view the strong feelings this provoked look really irrational, but from a fairness point of view they do not.
What are implications of all this for the New Commissioner? Well, most obviously it suggests that the Met shouldn’t just focus on reducing crime but on being fair. Or, put another way, that by being fair it can afford to be tough, and drive down crime. More concretely, Hough and others have spent the last few years developing a set of measures that will allow police and other criminal justice services to better assess the degree to which they are deemed fair. The Met has been involved in this work, and some police certainly get its significance, but the Commissioner needs to give it his full support. Indeed, with the Met facing significant cuts and quite possibly growing public order and other crime challenges, the fairness research feels more important than ever. The police are going to have to rely more than ever on the support of the wider community they serve.