The role of the police is to protect the public from those individuals who commit violence against themselves or their property. As the agency with the monopoly on the legitimate use of force in civil society, the police must be tightly controlled by the law to restrain this force. Thus, the content of a recently leaked report from Sir Paul Stephenson, the head of the Metropolitan police force, to the Home Secretary is particularly disappointing.
The report showed that Sir Paul believes the police should be shielded from legal action launched by the public. In the appendices of the leaked report, he called for the government to make it harder for individuals to mount cases against the police. Furthermore, Sir Paul also asked for a greater financial barrier to be put in place in obstacle to the public obtaining general information about the police through the use of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
Despite the cost to the police of fighting legal battle, it is the fundamental right of the public to mount such a case. So too are FOI requests, which give an open, transparent and accountable environment that allows the public to access information about the government that they are paying for. Though public institutions must cut costs, the costs of litigation against the police and FoI requests are cornerstones of our right to hold public bodies answerable for the decisions they make.
Sir Paul’s view of the protection from the law that he wishes for the police are disturbing. They come from a person who represents the police force – the foundation of our legal system. While the police hold criminals accountable for their actions, the police themselves must also be accountable to the public. Without this recourse to the courts, the current justice system would be even more illiberal than it currently is. Police must be answerable to civilians for their actions, and without the ability of the public to legally question them they are putting themselves above the justice system.