I recently discovered a couple of interesting articles in the Telegraph, one recent and one less so. Each of these outline proposals - an old set from the Conservatives in 2007 and a post-riots set from a Telegraph columnist - for creating a Territorial Army-style police reserve force. I was originally going to do a post arguing for much the same thing here, but I think that as the ground has been so well trodden those links should be sufficient.
However, establishing a Police Reserve would only solve one of the two major problems facing British policing: the manpower shortage. It would do nothing to address the second - and perhaps more important - problem: the political debate about whether or not British policing is 'consensual' or not. The lack of clear political direction at the top will do as much to cripple British public order policing as a lack of people, and risks more damage to the police's public image.
The photographs of police standing around, observing riots without intervening, outraged many. Yet it is very hard to place any blame on the shoulders of the officers on the ground. For years now, police action at riots has been met with relentless criticism, and their response to public disorder has been enfeebled as a consequence. This is especially true where the upper echelons of the service, more politicised and fearful of bad press, do not command the full confidence of the troops on the ground. If a police officer does not feel that their superiors will back them up one hundred percent, they will not risk life and limb only to risk dismissal or prosecution if he survives, and nor should they. And when British riot police now all come with ID numbers for ease of lawsuit, it starts to become somewhat miraculous that they dared step in at all.
With the advent of elected police commissioners, this trend is likely to get worse. After all, who wants to be the elected official responsible for an incident of police brutality, alleged or real? When democracy is introduced to the top of the UK's police forces, the gloves will most likely stay firmly on.
Beyond this, there are some good arguments for consensual policing. Critics of hard line public order policing are right to point out that it is hard for a police force to be cracking skulls in armour of an evening and comfortably patrolling those same streets in regular uniform the next day. Once the local police are put into an adversarial relationship with an element of the community they operate in, it is harder for them to operate at maximum effectiveness. The debate is often cast between the oh-so-British option of policing by acceptance and goodwill, and the somehow continental alternative of policing through force.
What if there was a solution that allows for both?
In France, and many other francophone countries, there operates an organisation known as the gendarmerie - a military police force with (almost) exclusively civilian responsibilities. While the French operate many different gendarmeries for different purposes, the model I'm proposing to copy here would be the Gendarmerie Mobile - the last line of defence in French riot control.
The idea behind establishing a British marshalcy is simple - it allows for the separation of consensual and coercive policing. Day to day patrol work, low level public order policing (as performed by the CRS in France) and most of the duties of a civilian police service would continue to be carried out by the regular police services. Specialised security work and dealing with severe public disorder would fall within the purview of the marshalcy. They would be trained in such tactics as CS gas, water cannon and rubber bullets and authorised to use them. Their job would be to go in and shut riots down, fast.
This could have several advantageous effects. Being a distinct organisation allows marshals to enjoy a clearer mandate and less politicised command establishment than the civilian police services. It also means that the impact of tough public order measures will not fall so much on the local police force, allowing them to focus on the consensual, community-focused policing that serves Britain so well most of the time. By having a national footprint (much like the British Transport Police), the marshalcy would be able to draw upon out-of-area manpower to avoid having to put local police officers into battle against local rioters.
By taking on most of the police-with-guns security tasks and absorbing such anomalies as the Ministry of Defence Police, a marshalcy could combine all the 'hard-edged' aspects of UK law enforcement into one well-trained, focused organisation. This would lend it one final - sad, but necessary - advantage: rioters would fear it. The problem with having a relatively conscientious, open policing style in the UK is that criminals are emboldened when the police are put up against it. Many were drawn onto the streets during the recent riots because the media was reinforcing a preconception that the police would do little to stop them. With this force, once they were deployed no looter would be in any doubt about their mandate or their capabilities. The line in the sand would be clear, and few would cross it.
Policing is not really a choice between British 'soft' policing and a 'harder' European approach, at least not in this day and age: a truly effective police policy must acknowledge the need for both.