‘We are not public servants’ and ‘policing by consent is not a duty’ – the disturbing and telling views of a police officer

27th March 2021

Here is a tweet.

The tweet purports to be from the chair of the Gloucestershire branch of the Police Federation.

This description must be true, because a tweet from that account was RTd just hours before by the account of the Gloucestershire Police Federation – and it can be assumed that they would not RT an imposter.

And that, in turn, is the account of the Gloucestershire Police Federation as it is directly linked to at their website (top right).

So, yes, it is a real tweet.

A real tweet by a real chair of a real police federation.

*

Having established the tweet’s authenticity, let us now look at its content.

The tweet states that the police are not public servants.

More exactly that ‘technically’ the police are not public servants.

As there is no ‘technical’ definition of the term ‘public servant’ this is a nonsense.

That a police constable is a servant of the crown – as are many civil servants – does not mean that they are also not public servants.

Crown servants – and others employed by the state in whatever legal form – are public servants.

Now look at the context of the tweet – it is intended as a correction in reply to a fair comment that the police should serve the public, not the government.

The reply denies that this is the case.

*

But not only does this tweet deny that the police are public servants – it also frames the concept of ‘policing by consent’ as a ‘general principle’ but not a ‘duty’.

Here the tweeter errs again.

If one actually reads the once-famous Peelite principles of policing, you will see this as the second principle:

‘To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.’

Indeed, each of the principles is set out as an express ‘instruction’ to constables: ‘to recognise’, ‘to maintain’, ‘to use’ and so on.

As such each of the principles is also a duty – and this is because – ahem, technically – a duty can also be a principle, and vice versa.

Especially when they are expressly framed as such, as they are in that formal definition of ‘policing by consent’.

But for our tweeter, these express instructions can be defined out of from having any actual application because they are only ‘principles’.

This, like the tweeter’s other distinction, is itself worrying and telling.

Policing by consent is not an optional nice-to-have in modern society – it is foundational.

That it can be expressly stated to not be a duty – notwithstanding the actual words of the instructions – is a disturbing insight.

*

Perhaps the tweet was a just a slip, not to be taken seriously.

(Though, remember the police themselves are often not so forgiving of the slips of others.)

Perhaps there will be a clarification, or something.

Or perhaps the tweets provided an indication – an insight – into a mindset of certain police officers.

That not being public servants and that not policing by consent are both a quick distinction away from having practical application in the discharge of their important role in our society.

***

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39 thoughts on “‘We are not public servants’ and ‘policing by consent is not a duty’ – the disturbing and telling views of a police officer”

  1. Thank you for putting this post up. It is indeed alarming that a senior police officer apparently thinks in that way, though not surprising to anyone who has actually taken part in a protest (I have been involved in a good number, the first back in October 1994 against what was then the Criminal Justice Bill) – we are all aware that our right to protest is at best grudgingly acknowledged by the police.

  2. Not being a member of the Twitterati myself, I initially interpreted RT to mean the “Russia Today” TV channel!

  3. That is truly terrifying. It is absolutely essential to firmly & loudly push back against such notions. We must not allow that to become an accepted or even a tolerable view from an actual policeman speaking ex cathedra as a policeman.

  4. This confirms my own long-held belief that the Police Federation is an organisation not fit for purpose. It should be, as a matter of urgency, wound up and replaced with a representative body which is fit for purpose.

    1. It’s entirely possible that the police federation is totally in tune with its members and therefore completely representative.
      This doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be wound up it just indicates that the problems of policing go far deeper than a couple of poor tweets from totalitarian minded officials.

      1. The Police Federation extracts industrial quantities of money from its members which it uses, as well as building itself a palatial HQ, to stand foursquare behind bent coppers and justice. A former colleague of my late husband’s, after leaving an organisation (Crown Servant!) I’m not allowed to mention, worked for a police force in a civilian capacity. He told us the Police were fundamentally unmanageable, in a business sense, because the Feds would not allow errant policemen to be disciplined.

  5. If he means policing by consent is not an absolute duty owed to all persons individually it’s forgivable – clearly the police do not have the consent of some persons at least some of the time (especially if the police are taking action against them). If he means it’s a nice optional extra then it’s a deplorable statement.

  6. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was a sectarian force in Northern Ireland from the early 1920s until it was disbanded, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland formed in 2001. It acted to enforce the will of the state, that is of the unionist majority in Stormont.

    James Craig, the first PM of NI, wasn’t permitted to raise a local army group; instead, he raised a force of “B Special” reserve constabulary to “support” the RUC. This was an entirely sectarian force comprised of thugs. It was paid for by the Westminster government.

    Though prohibited, a march by civil rights activists (the Peoples’ Democracy) from Belfast to Derry was ambushed at Burntollet Bridge on 4 January 1969. The “loyalist” ambushers included around 100 off-duty members of the B Specials. The RUC at the scene did little to prevent this, destroying whatever credibility they might have had. This was described as “the spark that lit the prairie fire” leading to 30 years of the “Troubles”.

    This is what you get when there is no policing by consent, where the police are state agents doing the will of the state.

  7. ‘Peaceful protest is a qualified not absolute right, has limits when it infringes on rights of others.’
    This was the bit that also struck me on reading the tweets. Is this where the problems lie?

    1. I’m not even sure what “rights” a peaceful protest might infringe on anyway: the “right” not to have your own belief system challenged?

      1. Perhaps my ‘right’ to go about *my* lawful business, not being impeded or interfered with by the protesters ? Or does that not count ?

        1. My two student daughters in Bristol surprised me last night by telling me that the demonstrations made them afraid to leave their flats. Their fear was of being assaulted by the police. They laughed at me when I asked about the demonstrators.

          Most telling to me was the comment that they felt it was like being in America

          We have a very serious problem with policing.

      2. If you were to seek to peacefully bring the centre of London to a halt for days or weeks by blocking major intersections, causing massive disruption not just as an ancilliary effect of a protest but as its very purpose (yes, XR,. we are talking about you) then I would say that is a peaceful protest that infringes on others rights.

        Even a disproportiante amout of ancilliary disruption would eventually cross a line…

  8. The Police Reform Act 2002 s. 83 amending Schedule 4 of the 1996 Act sets out a declaration and affirmation which must be made by all police officers

    ’I………………..of………………..do solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm that I will well and truly serve the Queen in the office of constable, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people; and that I will, to the best of my power, cause the peace to be kept and preserved and prevent all offences against people and property; and that while I continue to hold the said office I will, to the best of my skill and knowledge, discharge all the duties thereof faithfully according to law.’”

    1. Ah – that’ll be why yer man considers the police to be Crown servants, then…

      But as DAG suggests, “Crown servant” and “public servant” aren’t mutually exclusive propositions.

      1. Indeed Crown Servant is defined in law; Public Servant is not but it would seem hard to identify a Crown Servant who was not also a public servant.

        1. Especially so long as the Crown demands of its servants to declare and affirm they will uphold “fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people”. The Crown clearly views matters of public interest to inherently serve its own interest, even if this is never codified.

          I’d expect the day the Crown identifies an interest of its own that explicitly conflicts with the public interest and doesn’t seek to hide this conflict would be the first day in a relatively swift demise.

  9. I was an Direct Entrant Executive Officer into the Home Civil Service, recruited by the Civil Service Commission not an individual department.

    I believe I have my appointment letter somewhere. I used to joke and still do that my commission came from the Crown, but, in reality, the manner in which I was recruited was not significant.

    Although, it was some years after my taking up my commission before I stopped being looked at askance, if not with some hostility, particularly, at the start of a training course, because I had not come up through the ranks.

    In the terms of the then Unemployment Benefit Service, I had not managed a box, the UBS equivalent of walking a beat.

    When I submitted my application to the CSC, I clearly indicated I did not want to work with the public. As I later learnt, it might have been better to have said the opposite, because I might then have got that which I ‘did not want’.

    I finished my second and last tour of duty working in an inner city Jobcentre as its Inner City Officer. A job with a broad remit and one requiring me to spend a lot of time out of the office, working with the community.

    I had quite a sizeable, diverse patch to cover. I do not drive so I did so on foot and on public transport.

    Had I not regarded myself as a public servant, duty bound to serve the public then I would have very much been in the wrong job.

    Looking back, I do not regret having left Whitehall, my first posting, to come home and serve the public, my community, more personally.

    “You can’t always get what you want
    But if you try sometime you find
    You get what you need”

  10. I have the first three episodes of the original series of Z Cars on DVD and the issue of policing with consent is there right from the outset when the two pairs of officers are being recruited for the cars.

    The old sweat of a station sergeant at the Newtown nick delivers a soliloquy on the dangers of ever more coppers swanning around in cars, becoming detached from the communities they serve by not pounding a beat.

    Those episodes went out, live on air, in January 1962.

    Off the top of my head, I know the BBC returned to the theme in the early 1990s with the Waterfront Beat, filmed in Liverpool. An old sweat of a sergeant was still there, carrying like his 1960s forebear, a very long truncheon. A badge of office unique to police NCOs in Liverpool?

    The series really did cover the waterfront from the copper on the beat to meetings with Assistant Chief Constable, Operations. I remember well an episode in which a discussion took place about recruiting more officers from ethnic minority backgrounds. A topic very familiar to me during my time as the Secretariat serving the Employment Service Area Manager for Birmingham and Solihull.

    BBC executives stated that the series would “look at the way one non-metropolitan, urban police force comes to terms with economic regeneration by reorganising its City Division, in turn creating a separate Inner City Waterfront Division”, and that the series would explore “aspects of police work not normally featured and disabuse us of the notion that TV crime is always cracked in 50 minutes.” However, despite initial acclaim, Waterfront Beat was axed after just two series. The series has sadly never officially been released on DVD.

    Then we have The Thin Blue Line, a British sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson and written by Ben Elton. It aired on the BBC from 1995 to 1996. There is a lot of truth amongst the humour and “the fannying about”.

    As Commander Nathan Spring of Star Cops put it, where there are people, there will always be policing. A sentiment shared by Detective Chief Superintendent Robins when he announces his plans for the Z Cars.

    Robins, commenting on the growing sprawl of the early 1960s, observes that it is a bit like the Wild West and it is there job to help settle things down.

  11. Mr Green with the greatest respect, and not to be vexing, I must disagree with your criticisms of this post. I seem to be the only small-c conservative i.e. a traditional liberal posting to this blog. That is not a complaint, I enjoy the comments and respect your posts immensely.

    As for the tweet, lets bear in mind that it is a tweet not an essay which might contain further elaborations and qualifications for the points made.

    The “technicality” you speak of is in fact rather important and certainly needed further elaboration. Parliament, the Executive and the Courts all function “technically” in the name of the crown. Obviously the police must be sensitive to public opinion but that opinion is expressed by Parliament in law, not by opinionated individuals or groups, least of all by a shrill press. The police should not have to ask the transgressor for permission to arrest her because some segment of society thinks it unfair.

    Rights come with responsibilities as the tweet suggests. The right to demonstrate is not unlimited and indeed where demonstrators go too far and flout the law, they need to be curtailed. How that is done is where consent of the governed and public opinion comes into play.

    1. I don’t intend to disagree on points of technicality. But I think the issue of greatest concern is not with particular definitions: the concerning issue is an attitudinal one. This was I think more apparent when reading the tweet in it’s context as a somewhat confrontational rebuttal within a longer conversation (sadly at time of writing this context is no longer available no longer available since the Twitter account in question has moved to “private”).

      As individuals entrusted with important and significant powers in the name of all of us, the most important attribute of any police officer should be their attitude. A defiant lack of humility and a adversarial approach to the public should be the reddest of red flags. The crux of the tweet, and its place in the conversation it was part of, was a framing of the powers invested in police officers as entitlements that the law gives them, rather than weighty responsibilities that they shoulder as an altruistic act of public service. Regardless of their proficiency in any technical tasks associated with day-to-day policing, anyone with such an attitude should not be trusted to wield such powers on our behalf.

      1. Sadly, some when putting on the mantle of authority do rather let it go to their head.

        They do not wear it lightly and forget that with power comes responsibility.

    2. You give the Chair too little credit for his ability to communicate context via tweet rather than essay. The “technicality” he offered was not an idle observation made in a vacuum but a specific answer to somebody stating that “your duty is to protect the public and police by consent”.

      That is a duty which is in no conflict with police service to the Crown. There is nothing important about the role of the Crown in imposing that duty when it comes to the question of whether that duty exists.

      Your interpretation of public opinion is also far too narrow. The law, let alone statutory law enacted by Parliament, leaves open a broad spectrum of approaches by which it can be upheld through policing. Not all approaches can sustain equal degrees of public consent; yet by the principles David quotes above it is a requirement for police to consider that consent when choosing their path. The police have been directed to conduct their business according to these principles, both by its own leadership and by the government of the day, for centuries.

  12. The people do not consent to their government. The Crown exists without the people and it most certainly does not exist for the people. The Crown, not the people, rule.
    Were this America we would talk of a constitutional convention and the rule of law. Instead we have the Crown and Parliament an an armistice since 1689 where the government can exercise prerogative powers ie powers that are *not* derived from consent nor the people.
    The police swear their first oath to the Queen. They serve the Queen first and by extension the people. However, that does not make them public servants because they do not derive their powers from the consent of the people as they do in America.
    The police do not police by consent. Consent or rather tolerance makes them more effective and makes it easier. However, they exercise power and coercion and in extremis, such as 2011, they will use deadly force to enforce their will upon the people consent or no consent.
    What I have described above are not opinions. They are derived from the constitutional arrangements within the UK. It is why the Monarchy made a great effort to scrub their website wherein they noted that the source of the laws was the Queen. Again, not the people but the Monarch is the source of the law.
    In passing I would note that *all* the armed forces swear an oath to the Queen. None swear an oath to Parliament nor the people. The Navy is the Queen’s own force. In the US, they swear an oath to the Constitution or to their State constitution.

    What the police have done is reveal the underlying truth. The Peel statements are not constitutionally binding nor do they reflect a constitutional truth. Instead, they reflect an aspiration about policing as embodied in a liberal democratic illusion regarding the relationship between the police, the people, and the Crown.

  13. As a former police officer, I’d like to add some detail and perspective which is missing from this discussion so far. First, police officers are “Crown Officers”. They are not, in law, ‘civil servants’. They swear allegiance to the Crown, and have a duty to maintain the Queen’s Peace. The office of constable – which all police officers hold, regardless of rank – requires a independence of action and individual responsibility and accountability. Each constable is individually responsible for their actions – or, indeed, their failure to take action – and is accountable to the Law for that. This independence is central to *applying* the rule of law in this country.

    The term ‘public servant’ does not carry any legal meaning, I would argue. There are many people who serve the public, some employed by central government, some by local government, some by bodies funded from public sources, some in private companies contracted by public funding, even some volunteers. All may be described as public servants. The employment status and duties of each will vary widely. Legally, constables do not ‘serve the public’. They are crown officers, with a specific legal duty, answerable to the Law.

    Second, ‘policing by consent’ is a *style* of policing which British policing has promoted throughout its existence. It pre-dates Peel. (The Peelian Principles weren’t written by Peel, by the way.). It’s also not unique to England and Wales. Police officers are few in number and can only operate successfully where there is general public acceptance of the rule of law. There is always a minority of the public which does not accept the law and does not consent to be policed. They’re the bread and butter of police work. Burglars, robbers, rapists, thieves, murderers, speeders, drink-drivers – whatever the crime, constables will be confronted by criminals who do not consent to being policed. Their lack of ‘consent’ may be flexible and temporary. Overall, policing works best where there is widespread public consent to being policed.

    At times and in places, that consent may break down. Northern Ireland provides a powerful example where a large section of the community ceased to consent. That highlights the other long tradition of British policing – enforcement of the Law, by force if necessary. While constables have a degree of discretion, they still have a duty to uphold the Law and maintain the Queen’s Peace. Those who break the Law, no matter how well principled they believe they are, are still breaking the Law. Those who use or threaten violence unlawfully are breaching the Peace. Constables have a duty to act in those situations, and restore the Peace.

    In the long run, as we’ve seen throughout history around the world, civil policing cannot operate where there is widespread lack of consent among the general population. In those situations, it can only operate through enforcement – generally by force. The policing style can help encourage consent, or it can discourage it. Usually there are other social factors that are beyond the influence of the constabulary.

    1. You say:

      At times and in places, that consent may break down. Northern Ireland provides a powerful example where a large section of the community ceased to consent. That highlights the other long tradition of British policing – enforcement of the Law, by force if necessary.

      One section of the community in NI saw the RUC as an “occupying force”. The RUC was widely seen as enforcers of the sectarian policies of the unionist government. Marches and demos for civil rights were banned ostensibly because of the risk of “disturbances”. (See my reference to Burntollet above; at that stage the march had been peaceful.)

      Imagine in England that a section of the community was against the war in Iraq, or against the visit of President Trump. If similar policies to those in NI were employed, such demos would be banned. And if they had then taken place, the rule of law would have been upheld with truncheons and arrests. Is that what you want?

      Remember Ian Tomlinson.

      1. ‘What I want’ is irrelevant. We live in a democratic state, which may have many flaws, but continues as long as the people consent to being part of that state. As part of that consent, the people also subject themselves to the rule of law. There are many examples around the world of what happens when sections of the community cease to consent. In most cases, civil policing cannot function – as we saw in parts of Northern Ireland. There are also many examples of rights and freedoms that only exist because of the rule of law, and because there is a police force to protect and enforce them.

        Policing in Northern Ireland has its roots that other style of British policing – enforcement. The RIC was also founded by Peel, and before he created the Metropolitan Police. Its role was to enforce English law in a rebellious part of the Kingdom, by armed force if necessary. The RIC was a model for colonial policing – which would now be described as a paramilitary gendarmerie. The RIC lived on as the RUC, of course. Peel sought a different model for policing in London, one that was more ‘civilian’ in nature.

        The officer in the Ian Tomlinson case was held to account by the Law. The Law applies to us all.

  14. Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, posted about the previous evening’s events on Saturday 27th March.

    These two paragraphs stand out for me:

    “Avon and Somerset Police in Bristol have shown they are capable of managing protests well and with sensitivity and have developed a strong culture of working with our communities. The numbers of people coming to Bristol mean more police have had to be brought in from neighbouring constabularies.”

    “This makes it more difficult to drive the culture we have been building over recent years. Our local leadership have a difficult job and they have the highest standards to maintain. We know they will review some of the incidents that occurred last night and ensure those standards are upheld.”

    As I read it, Rees is implying that the manner in which officers from neighbouring forces were integrated into Avon and Somerset’s response to the protests, how they were then deployed and behaved contributed to how events played out.

    Quite rightly, that aspect of the policing of Friday evening’s events should form part of a serious and detailed review alongside asking how the neighbouring forces, like the Gloucestershire Constabulary, determined which officers were most suitable to be lent to Avon and Somerset, at very short notice, for such duty on a Friday night.

    One has one’s suspicions, based on experiences of seeking volunteers, quite often at the drop of a hat, for dealing with spikes in demand for staff during, for example, the Foot and Mouth outbreak of the early 2000s, when we came within days of conscripting butchers signing on to take part in slaughtering cattle, and major recruitment and redundancy exercises.

    Marvin Rees’ full statement is here:

    https://www.facebook.com/MarvinJRees/posts/1877016729113691

  15. If the police do not carry out their functions with the consent (of the vast majority) of the public, by implication, they would be enforcing the rule of law against the wishes of the public. Without getting into the semantics of serving the crown or being civil servants, ultimately, anybody paid from the public purse can be said to be serving the public. I find the view expressed quite disturbing, but then, many a copper is not engaged on the basis of his towering intellect and perhaps the subtleties of what he is saying is lost on him.

  16. Don’t forget the self-satisfied, night constable Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing), who in appointing another officer, says, “You’re thought to be the most senseless and fit man here, so you will carry the lantern and be constable. This is your assignment”.

  17. The expression “crown servant” can be a comfort to those in public service required by politicians to act in ways or to agendas that may be illegal, immoral, or politically biased.

    During a leak panic, relates Neal Ascherson (LRB 1 April ’21), “somebody in Whitehall revealed to a journalist that a cabinet minister was lying. In the uproar that followed, a civil servant was challenged to confirm that she owed unconditional loyalty to her minister. But she demurred. “At the end of the day, I answer to the little lady at the end of the Mall.””

    For civil servants, the comfort available is limited because, although they are indeed servants of the Crown, so too is the government they serve: it is Her Majesty’s Government. Civil servants are crown servants employed to carry out the business of other crown servants. This fact forms a hurdle between them and their loyalty to the Crown, the only route to the crossing of which is illegality or other activity of the most heinous kind by the government or its ministers.

    Police officers do not have such a barrier to the same extent: the oath of offce of each individual officer is to “well and truly serve the Queen in the office of constable”. That is as well, because in carrying out their duty “to cause the peace to be kept”… “with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people”, they are frequently required to make fine judgements in tense and fluid situations, often on the basis of inadequate law. Part of that fine balance can easily be political considerations – most obviously when policing political demonstrations, or demonstrations that become political.

    I see this tweet in that context: my guess is that the thinking behind it is as much disquiet at the expectations of government and its supporters as authoritarian attitudes towards the public among police officers. This is not to say that it is not a matter for concern. That it is thinking poorly expressed would be a charitable interpretation. But I do think it deserves rather more empathy than mere angry condemnation and outrage allow.

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