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Is police transparency good enough?

Professor Betsy Stanko delivered the annual lecture for the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism

by Ed Grover (Senior Communications Officer)

The UK’s police forces still need to give more information to the public despite making huge improvements in their transparency, according to high-profile social scientist Professor Betsy Stanko OBE.

Professor Stanko, Head of Evidence and Insight at the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime, was speaking at the annual lecture for the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism (CLJJ), based at City University London.

The academic, who is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Sociology at City, gave her views on the development of police transparency, drawing on her experience from 12 years working within the Metropolitan Police Service.

Are we shoring up an institution for the institution’s sake and not for the people’s sake?
Professor Betsy Stanko OBE 

She said there was now “much greater transparency” than when she started researching UK policing in 1982, with many statistics now available online in formats like interactive crime maps.

However, she believes more work needs to be done to help the public understand what crime figures reveal about police performance and how problems are being tackled.

“I’d like for us to be able to be even stronger in our requirement that our democratic institutions work for us and that we find a way to challenge practice in a way that gets behind and underneath the transparency, which is just beginning to happen,” she said.

“That transparency, I think, is still surrounded in a myth of an institution that we believe and hope works for us.”

The lecture, on Tuesday 21st April, has taken place in each of the past four years and has welcomed some of country’s leading academics and practitioners in the fields of law, justice and journalism. They include Mr Justice Eady, Baroness Buscombe and former Ofcom Chief Executive Ed Richards.

The CLJJ is the first major interdisciplinary centre in the UK to develop a broad yet focused interface between law, justice and journalism in society.

The centre aims to harness and maximise opportunities for research collaboration, knowledge transfer and teaching to become a centre of excellence.

There has been a major transformation with policing and it has happened in a very short period of time
Professor Betsy Stanko OBE

Professor Stanko, who is well-known for her research, particularly into rape and sexual violence, asked whether transparency was being used to protect public bodies or to serve the public more effectively.

She said: “Are we actually improving grounded practice in a way that is going to change things? Or are we shoring up an institution for the institution’s sake and not for the people’s sake?”

The academic said the current UK government had made significant efforts to increase transparency and called the progress in police professionalism the biggest ever change in policing.

“In particular, this government has put a real push in and I think there are things that are happening now that did not exist in 1982 when I started to work in Britain,” she said. “They certainly did not exist in the seventies and eighties when I was working in the United States.

“The thought of getting any information about crime and criminal justice, aside from numbers every year in the annual crime statistics registers, was very, very rare.”

She added: “Who would have thought that it would be the Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition that would have brought the biggest change to policing ever in our lifetimes, and in the history of policing?

“There has been a major transformation with policing and it has happened in a very short period of time. The transformation is being felt by police officers, as they transform what they do for a living.”

Professor Stanko also said:

  • The mobile phone is a “weapon of transparency” that has empowered the public
  • “Disquiet” among the public is helping to improve transparency
  • Professor Stanko said she never could have expected the extent to which police admitted failures after the Hillsborough disaster. She described the admission as “unbelievable” and said findings of the enquiry into the 1989 tragedy were “absolutely stunning”.

Professor Chris Greer, Co-Director of the CLJJ and Head of the Department of Sociology at City, added: “Professor Stanko was a pioneering researcher of violence against women through the 1970s and 1980s and has since become one of the key policing and criminal justice policy players in London.

“We are absolutely delighted to have Betsy working with us as we continue building criminology at City.”

For more information about the CLJJ, click here.

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