Huhne: police officers with criminal convictions should be sacked. (Question: should they?)

by Stephen Tall on March 11, 2009

Here’s how the party’s lead press release today, picked up by much of the media today, reports this latest crime statistic:

Over a thousand serving police officers in Great Britain have criminal convictions, according to new figures revealed by the Liberal Democrats. …

• There were 1,063 serving police officers in 41 police forces across Britain who had criminal convictions
• This includes five officers who were sacked by the force but reinstated by the Home Office
• There are 77 serving police officers with convictions for violent offences who have kept their jobs: 59 with convictions for assault; 14 for violence against the person; two for battery; and one for wounding
• In the last five years, just 45 have been dismissed from the police for violent offences
• 96 serving police officers have convictions for offences of dishonesty: 36 for theft; five for perverting the course of justice; three for fraud; and one each for dishonesty and forgery
• In the last five years, just 37 have been dismissed from the police for dishonesty
• 210 officers have been dismissed or required to resign in the past five years as a result of other criminal convictions

The Lib Dems’ shadow home secretary, Chris Huhne, has adopted an ultra-tough line, calling on all police officers convicted of a criminal offence involving violence or dishonesty to be dismissed:

The public entrust the police with the use of legal force precisely because they are self-disciplined and restrained, which is why anyone convicted of a violent offence should be dismissed. … “The public will be rightly concerned that there are serving police officers who have committed crimes as serious as GBH, assault, wounding and robbery. Allowing police officers convicted of offences of violence or dishonesty to continue serving merely brings the vast majority of law-abiding and diligent officers into disrepute. Police forces should get tough on bad apples.”

There are two issues to highlight here. First, I think the party was wrong to splash the news release with the figure “over a thousand”, since more than half of those 1,000+ criminal convictions were traffic offences, and not therefore comparable to a conviction for GBH. Sure, it makes for a good headline, but the moment it’s revealed that a significant proportion are traffic offences it actually detracts from the seriousness of the other figures.

The second point, though, is a bigger one: is Chris Huhne right to argue for automatic dismissal of police officers with serious criminal convictions? There are two (eminently liberal) arguments to be made against what Chris is saying.

First, that each and every case must be judged on its own merit; there may sometimes be extenuating circumstances why it’s felt an individual convicted of a criminal offence (even a violent one), and who has served their sentence, deserves a second chance. After all, rehabilitation is the very essence of the optimistic liberal belief that we are all citizens capable of making a positive contribution to society.

Secondly, Chris criticises the fact that different police forces operate different policies: for example, North Yorkshire police have a zero tolerance approach to officers with criminal convictions, while in Grampian 2.5% of serving police officers have criminal convictions. The implication of Chris’s statement is that there needs to be a nationally enforced policy of zero tolerance. But isn’t that something best left to the police forces themselves – at least if they’re made democratically accountable, as Lib Dems propose – to decide? After all, if the citizens of Grampian are content with their force’s policy, why should a Westminster politician seek to tell them otherwise?

Set against these two philosophical arguments is a cold, hard fact which Chris is right to point out:

I cannot see how a police officer convicted of dishonesty can perform their duty effectively, as any prosecutor would be reluctant to call them as a witness for fear of being taken apart by the defence.

If the individual officer can no longer perform their job as a result of their conviction then, ultimately, they have only themselves to blame, no matter what the extenuating circumstances.