Treating people fairly is a main objective of ethics panel
Andrew Lockley is the Chair of the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Independent Ethics Panel and had this to say.
For more than five years, a small group of local people have been advising South Yorkshire Police (SYP) on ethics. None of us has worked in policing before.
Treating people fairly is one of the priority objectives of Dr Alan Billings, the South Yorkshire Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC). To support this, the Independent Ethics Panel was set up.
Readers can guess why the PCC thought ethical scrutiny would help. In 2015, SYP had not shaken off a toxic reputation gained from its perceived roles in the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85 and the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989. It was also hit with serious criticism for not dealing with child sex exploitation in Rotherham over many years, and for alerting the BBC to its raid on the home of Sir Cliff Richard. All of this was seen as undermining public trust and confidence in the Force.
In summer 2014, the College of Policing had promulgated the first Code of Ethics - national standards and values. Other professions such as doctors, nurses and solicitors, have had these for many decades.
Even routine policing involves sensitive decisions, such as when to stop and search, and when and how force is used. How hate crime reports are handled, and whether complaints are dealt with fairly, are other sensitive areas.
So, six years on from the Code of Ethics, are things different? I think they are. The culture of defensiveness has gone. When police get it wrong, the error or mis-judgement is acknowledged. We saw that earlier this year when the Force lost no time in ‘fessing up’ when an over-zealous officer tried to stop a Rotherham family from sitting in their garden during lockdown. Contrast that with the way Derbyshire Police brazened it out when it wrongly scapegoated a couple perfectly lawfully walking their dog on Curbar Edge. But many challenges remain.
The murder of George Floyd spotlighted racist behaviour by USA law enforcement agencies. That sparked questions about policing in the UK, but in reality the parallels are few. Policing in the UK relies on the consent of the public. It is that philosophy which underscores their not being routinely armed.
Many point to over-representation of minority ethnic citizens in the stop and search statistics. Following scrutiny, the Panel believes it is too simplistic to say that the statistics are evidence of police racism. For a start, the proportions of stops and searches are measured against the baseline of the 2011 census, rather than the up-to-date ethnic mix of Sheffield’s population. This has changed in the last nine years, as school statistics show. And the great majority of those stopped are between 16 and 34. Put these factors together and minority ethnic over-representation may be less than appears.
And SYP is getting better at targeting stop and search. Stops have increased over the last three years, but the proportion of successful searches has stayed in the same range (20-30 per cent). The Panel’s scrutiny will continue, and on diversity as well. The recruitment of minority ethnic candidates into the Force has been sluggish, but this is improving, and is now at a high of 7.4 per cent. This matters because the Force must have public legitimacy. Police-public encounters (including stops and searches) are now routinely captured on body-worn videos (BWV), so footage of incidents can be reviewed. We were initially cautious about rolling out this technology, but BWV has been accepted by both officers and the public.
The protection of subjects’ privacy was a concern in the introduction of BWV. With technology set to play a bigger role, the Panel has set out an ethical checklist to guide SYP if it adopts digital policing. For example, Artificial Intelligence (AI) may help assess risk, identify wanted suspects and predict potential ‘hot-spot’ crime areas, but there are concerns about data quality and privacy issues. To see how AI-based decisions can go wrong, we need only look at the school exam results of this summer.