The events of recent weeks have proved, if it was ever up for debate, that the American policing system is not fit for purpose.
The latest in a string of racially-motivated killings, and the response to the subsequent demonstrations, should have been enough to convince anybody to steer clear of a similar justice system. Anybody except, it seems, our Home Secretary.
Priti Patel has become increasingly involved in the justice system in recent weeks, first demanding that those who toppled the statue of Edward Colston be prosecuted, before also condemning the perpetrators of violence at anti-demonstrations.
These interventions risk moving the UK towards a politicised police and justice system more akin to that of the USA than what we are used to.
Why is this important?
Whatever your views on the substance of Patel’s interventions, it is worrying that a high-ranking member of the government sees fit to weigh in on police matters. Following reports that the Home Secretary rebuked Chief Constable Andy Marsh, Bristol’s Chief of Police, after he failed to prevent Colston’s statue being torn down during protests in Bristol, Patel’s actions have been branded an ‘abuse of power’.
In order for the rule of law to be applied, the police force must be free to enforce the law at its own discretion. Interventions by government officials in specific cases endanger this because they introduce a political element into the justice system, which can prejudice law enforcement.
By directly appealing for certain outcomes over recent protests, Priti Patel has threatened the independence of both the police and the courts. There will now be pressure not only to apply the law objectively, but also to satisfy the inclinations of the government, or risk repercussions.
What does this mean for the police?
After Patel reprimanded Marsh, the police force has come out in support of the officers in Bristol who decided against intervening to protect the Colston statue so as not to risk more outbreaks of violence.
Marsh penned a joint letter with Sue Mountstevens, the locally elected Police and Crime Commissioner, defending officers’ use of common sense as well as the wider principle of political independence.
British police are respected to a far greater extent than their American counterparts, largely because they are seen as an apolitical force. While American law enforcement is frequently accused of promoting political – and often racist – agendas due to politicians making key appointments, the British emergency services tend to be more objective.
However, if it becomes commonplace for the government to take a direct interest in, and even influence, police matters then this admiration will soon dissipate. The likely result of this would be more violence and disorder as people come to view the police as merely puppets of the government.
The response to the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK is a prime example of this, as several far-right groups saw the Home Secretary’s criticism of law enforcement as a green light to organise anti-protests which saw violent clashes with the police.
What does this mean for the government?
As racial tensions combine with concerns over the reopening of the economy, public trust is paramount in the present environment. Therefore, Patel has been nothing short of reckless in jeopardising the police’s relationship with both the government and the population.
The Prime Minister should be incensed after her recent statements, given the importance of the police to his government’s agenda. One of Johnson’s flagship policies has been to recruit 20,000 new police officers so he cannot afford divisions in this area.
The political capital which will be afforded the government by fulfilling the pledge will be diminished if its relationship with the force is damaged, and even more so if police officers are not respected by the public.
Meanwhile, it is lunacy for the government to appear to be anything other than wholly committed to the rule of law after the recent Dominic Cummings debacle. By intervening in police matters, the Home Secretary continues to boost the narrative that the government wishes the law to be inconsistently implemented in line with its own interests.
What happens next?
In an ideal world, the Home Secretary would apologise to the relevant police bodies for her criticism and admit that she has acted beyond her brief. However, given Patel’s history of intervening where she shouldn’t, this is unlikely.
The best we can hope for is that the government gives public backing to the police force so that officers can enforce the law appropriately and objectively, maintaining independence from the government.