The rule of law and the meaning of leadership

Senior police officers have failed in their duty to uphold the rule of law in their reaction to the release of Harry Roberts, argues Richard Garside.

By: 
Richard Garside
Date: 
Friday, 24 October, 2014

How should senior politicians and police officers respond to the release of a 78 year old man who is controversially up for release after spending 48 years in prison on a life sentence?

What are the responsibilities of leadership in the face of passionately held opinions and strong disagreement? How can fair and impartial decisions best be made?

How can the rule of law be protected in the face of understandable anger and emotion?

Yesterday the Parole Board announced that Harry Roberts, jailed in 1966 for the murder of three police officers, was to be released.

At the time of his trial the judge recommended that Roberts should serve a minimum of 30 years in prison. He has served 18 years more than this.

Quizzed on the decision yesterday the Home Secretary Theresa May would not be drawn. 'It's a decision by the independent Parole Board', she said.

On his weekly LBC radio show the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke about the importance of the rule of law when it came to unpopular decisions:

'One of the founding principles about the way that we do justice in this country is that you have an independent bunch of people who... make a judgement about whether someone can be released or not... I want to... vigorously protect the system that allows decisions such as this to be made, however controversial and unpopular they are... It is not about my feelings... It is about how the justice system works.'

I agree with Nick. And Theresa.

What about senior police officers? They have a professional duty to uphold the rule of law and to promote public confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice process.

Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, gave the official view of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO):

'We respect the decision made by the Parole Board to release Harry Roberts in its role to balance punishment and rehabilitation but we also understand the strength of feeling from many in the Police Service because this was a brutal crime which shook the nation at the time.'

I agree with Peter too.

His fellow ACPO member, and Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, disagreed with Theresa, Nick and Peter. He attacked the Parole Board decision: 'In this case "life" should have meant what it said'.

The Chairman of the Police Federation for England and Wales, Steve White, also disagreed. He described the decision as 'abhorent' and 'a slap in the face for the families of the three police officers he brutally murdered'.

A number of others have given their tuppence-worth on the Parole Board decision.

The families of Constable Geoffrey Fox, Sergeant Christopher Head and Detective Constable David Wombwell suffered a devastating loss at the time of their murder. We can all understand that the pain of their loss is felt to this day.

But who are all these other people who appear so angry? Who has appointed them to speak on behalf of the rest of us? What motivates them to misuse three awful murders to promote the facile notion of 'life meaning life'?

What kind of society do such people want to live in? One where a chief constable, a police officer, a grieving relative, an angry member of the public, gets to decide when someone should be released from prison?

When you live in a society that is governed by the rule of law, not all decisions will be to your liking. Accepting that many decisions are difficult, and respecting the work of those who have to balance a number of competing demands, is part of the deal.

To do otherwise is to fail to understand why the rule of law is important. To use a position of power and influence as a senior police officer to undermine the rule of law is a dereliction of duty.

Yesterday the Home Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister and ACPO showed the meaning of leadership.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the Chair of the Police Federation for England and Wales would do well to learn from their example.