London — It has taken 156 years for London's police force to be given a new code of conduct. Now they have one, thanks to the reforming zeal of its current commissioner. The London bobby is special in at least two ways. Unlike his counterpart in population centers beyond the capital, he operates directly under the eye of the home secretary, not provincial authorities.
He performs his job in a metropolitan crime center whose record for law-breaking has worsened in recent years. Doing his duty in a goldfish bowl, the policeman in Britain's capital city has come under mounting criticism.
When Sir Kenneth Newman took over as commissioner of the metropolitan police he assumed control of a force battling with rising crime and a reputation dented by reports of inefficiency and corruption.
Added to the problem was London's special racial mix -- a huge city where unemployment and social deprivation marred the lives of many thousands of immigrants.
Sir Kenneth's task was a dual one: containing (and if possible, solving) the crime problem, while convincing the majority white population of London that authorities were able to cope.
The centerpiece of Newman's reforms is a new police code of conduct aimed at restoring public confidence in the activities of the bobby on the beat. In future, the 25,000 officers in the force, together with new recruits, will be required to stick to a 64-page guide offering advice on the ethical and practical problems of policing the capital.
Introducing it, Sir Kenneth claimed that the code was the first of its kind. The theme, he said, was to persuade London's police to switch from being an inward-looking force and become an outward-looking set of officers with their eyes on the future and their ears open to community responses.
Some policemen, discouraged by a crime wave and a degree of popular aversion to police methods, hinted at doubts about the new code. But London, according to Sir Kenneth, was part of a ``vibrant democracy.'' It was necessary, he said, to ``cherish freedom.''
To achieve this it was vital for the bobby on the beat and officers set above him to avoid corruption, take account of differing but legitimate racial and cultural differences between social groups, and encourage legitimate free speech.
``It is a duty to show compassionate respect for the dignity of the individual and to treat every person of whatever social position, race, or creed with courtesy and understanding,'' the new code declares. '
The commissioner is reconciled to high crime rates. But he wants to avoid a response to crime by police that may worsen the problem: alienating citizens in the twilight zone between legality and wrongdoing.
The Newman handbook to police conduct warns equally against ``excessive zeal'' and ``undue tolerance.'' The bobby, it says, should be a ``friend and a guide'' to citizens, and ``never a master.''
Sir Kenneth devised his code of conduct against a background of evidence suggesting rising numbers of Londoners no longer had full confidence in their police force. One in 10 is said to be alienated completely, while others say they have serious doubts about police conduct.
``We have the best police force in the world,'' Sir Kenneth said, introducing the new rule book. What was needed was for the public to recognize the reality and give the bobby their confidence.
For his part, Sir Kenneth would be pressing the metropolitan police to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the principles on which the new code of conduct rests. Then it would be up to citizens to draw conclusions from what they observe of police behavior.