Column: Public trust and use of force

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings at the press conference to announce the interim chief constable of South Yorkshire as David Jones. Picture: Andrew Roe
South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings at the press conference to announce the interim chief constable of South Yorkshire as David Jones. Picture: Andrew Roe
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Police in this country are largely an unarmed service. This is a tradition we value. It dates back to the time when Sir Robert Peel founded the first police force, the London Metropolitan, when he was Home Secretary between 1822 and 1827.

It was Peel’s view that in a democracy there was no need to arm the police because, as he put it: “The police are the public and the public are the police.”

This only works, of course, as long as the police retain the trust and confidence of the public. This is why some aspects of past conduct in South Yorkshire have been so damaging. It is why trust can quickly be lost – as it was for a while when the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandals were revealed in 2014.

Trust and confidence is built every day by officers doing a good job. This is why today’s police work hard to show they have learnt lessons from the past and are trying to get to a different place.

It is something which I, as Police and Crime Commissioner, and the interim Chief Constable, Stephen Watson, are determined to work on together to get right.

The use of force is one dimension of policing where trust has to be maintained. We – the public – recognise there may be times when the police need to use force in order to carry out their responsibility of protecting us. We understand that – though we also expect the use of force to be proportionate, to be properly recorded and accounted for. This is especially the case when force may lead to injury.

Public concern has recently been around the use of Tasers rather than firearms. Tasers are meant to be non-lethal weapons. They project small darts – electrodes – into the body and deliver an electrical shock which temporarily incapacitates.

Tasers also work psychologically. They are highly visible in the hands of the officer using one and their laser sighting system produces a small red dot on the body of the person being aimed at. Sometimes this is enough to calm someone down and ensure compliance. So, we find that while Tasers were used 10,329 times in the UK in 2015, they were only discharged on 1,921 occasions (19 per cent). They are rarely used in South Yorkshire.

It is not for Police and Crime Commissioners to tell Chief Constables when to authorise the use of Tasers. That has to be an operational matter.

But it is the job of a Commissioner to ensure, on behalf of the public, that their use is appropriate.

That way public trust and confidence is maintained.