UK: Taking statements from the keepers of the peace - CHIEF CONSTABLES.

UK: Taking statements from the keepers of the peace - CHIEF CONSTABLES. - Chief Constables.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Chief Constables.

By Robert Reiner.

Oxford; 396pp; £17.96.

Review by Tim Beaumont.

This book is a fascinating study of a section of the law and order machinery of this country - and, incidentally, of a system of management - which has not been examined in depth before. The author, who teaches law at the LSE, has written two previous books on other aspects of the Police. And it was in spite of some individual criticism of these that he managed to get the backing of the Home Office, and of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), for the current venture. It is based upon interviews with 40 of the 43 chief police officers of England and Wales.

What he has produced is of course a 'snapshot', a frozen picture of a moment in the development of an institution. What many of us 'know' about chief constables is another snapshot, derived from our reading of the Golden Age of Detective Stories. In those days the chief constable was a retired colonel on dining terms with the County and, in the opening chapters, rather over-protective of the feelings of the owners of the big house in whose library the corpse has inconveniently been discovered.

Possibly the last real-life survivor of that period was recorded by Eric St Johnston, who became chief constable of Oxfordshire at the age of 28. On moving into the job St Johnston was admonished by his predecessor not 'to get any of these new ideas and start coming into the office after lunch'.

So what does today's snapshot show? In a sense, rather less than one taken two or three decades ago, for the number of chief police officers has decreased and is decreasing. One of the gaps in this book is the absence of a group photograph. Does the ACPO not have a group photo taken at its AGM? The shadowy figure on the dust cover is hardly sufficient to represent a group of men who have become a corporate elite. The other gap I regretted was a table of IQ scores, although I can understand why the author did not even attempt to get one. I suspect they would be high.

The snapshot that the author gives us is certainly impressive.

It is also rather odd. Although he divides his subjects into barons, bobbies, bosses and bureaucrats, they have a remarkably uniform identikit. To start with, not one of them is a woman, but that's only to be expected of a 1990 snap. More extraordinary, none of them entered the police force with a degree, although something like a quarter have collected one along the way.

A good proportion came from police families. The corporate profile is of the working-class grammar-school boy made good.

They command large numbers of men and women and are themselves answerable to virtually nobody. If their attitudes and skills can be summed up in a couple of phrases, they combine conservative social views with a capacity to innovate.

What will the snapshot of the future look like? Almost certainly the CPOs will be fewer, and the forces they control will be bigger, largely by amalgamation. (One of the slightly surprising findings of this survey is that, while all forces 'need more men', there is a predominant feeling that any increase would not necessarily result in more crimes being solved.) They will be more tightly controlled by the Home Office. They will continue to feel strapped for cash.

Many more will find that their jobs are basically bureaucratic.

Some (perhaps even a woman) will have armed themselves with degrees before entry into the force. There will be a growing tendency to measure their achievements in terms of 'public tranquillity' rather than conviction rates. There could even be a recurrence of the 'officer class syndrome' earlier seen in Trenchard's reforms and recently espoused by Margaret Thatcher.

At present the topmost ranks of the police are a classic meritocracy.

Not the least of the attractions of this book are the chunks of tape recorded statement (all unattributed and, the author claims, unidentifiable). But there are some nice remarks - as well as remarkable traces of the discipline imposed on self-expression by the social and professional climb. An assistant chief constable responds to a colleague's genuinely friendly suggestion that he might look for a job (on his way up the convoluted ladder of promotion) with the suggestion that he 'go wee in his best hat'. We've come a long way since the corpse in the library.

Lord Beaumont is an Anglican priest and politician.

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