BRITAIN'S police are facing their biggest shake-up this century as crime levels soar and law-enforcement officers try to persuade the public that police corruption is a thing of the past.
In a bid to get a grip on lawlessness, Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke plans to give greater operational control to local commanders. But he has failed in an attempt to reduce the large number of independent police forces in England and Wales.
Instead he will insist on personally choosing the chairmen of local police authorities and will set targets for the prevention and punishment of crime.
Supervision of Scotland Yard, the British capital's famed police force, will be switched from the Home Office to a government-appointed body.
The measures follow the introduction of controversial new ethical guidelines, which police say impede them in their task of gathering evidence against suspected criminals but which Mr. Clarke says are essential for rooting out "rotten apples" from police ranks.
Trade union leaders representing the country's 128,000 constables and sergeants have bitterly criticized another of Clarke's reform projects: saving money by hiring private security firms for some police functions.
When earlier this year reports began reaching the chiefs of the 43 police forces in England and Wales that Clarke was in a mood to reform, hostility among them stirred. Government officials say the home secretary was forced to drop plans to streamline the tangle of existing units into 30 more powerful forces.
Defending his law-enforcement blueprint in the House of Commons, Clarke said: "My aim is to help the police service help the government to build a safer and more secure society."
It promises to be a difficult task. A Home Office official said April 13 that recorded criminal offenses has risen by roughly 50 percent over the last four years, but the rate of solving crimes has been falling steadily. The official said the level of actual crime was about three times higher than the recorded figure.
Meanwhile, evidence has mounted that in the 1980s, police battling against crime routinely bent and broke rules of ethical conduct, and this has reduced the credibility of police in the eyes of the British public.
In a series of widely publicized cases, men and women imprisoned for alleged crimes have been able to prove that police distorted or falsified evidence obtained during questioning.
In the most recent case, Leslie Horrobin, imprisoned for his alleged part in a post office raid, was released in early April after six years when he proved that evidence in the case had been falsified by police.
Paul Condon, newly appointed head of Scotland Yard, has admitted that detectives in such cases indulged in what he calls "noble-cause corruption," which he defined as the abuse of guidelines in order to convict people detectives were convinced were guilty. Mr. Condon condemns the approach but says it was not unusual only a few years ago.
New guidelines, designed to protect the rights of witnesses, are creating problems as the police struggle to regain public confidence. In a television program screened nationally April 5, officers demonstrated that under new, more lenient rules for police interviewing, a suspect would have little trouble resisting demands that he name an accomplice.
John Walkley, a former senior Scotland Yard officer and author of "Police Interrogation," a book widely read by police officers, says the new guidelines will reduce the number of convictions and encourage criminals to believe they can escape justice.
While the government struggles to turn back the current crime wave, an argument is developing about the best way to structure the nationwide police effort. Clarke is said by his political associates to regard as wasteful and absurd the arrangement whereby there are 43 separate police forces. But Tony Blair, the opposition Labour Party's "shadow" home secretary, has other ideas.
"The key to good policing is to avoid centralization that puts the police out of touch with local people," Mr. Blair said. He attacked Clarke's insistence that the home secretary must be allowed to choose police authority chairpersons, and won support from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities whose spokesman condemned it as "a dangerous erosion of police authority."
In fact there has been a steady trend toward fewer police forces in Britain, from 117 in the 1960s to the current 43.
Clarke may have more difficulty promoting the idea of handing over to private firms police duties such as patrolling housing estates and maintaining security at law courts.
In early April, a private security firm hired to escort prisoners to court appearances in Western England allowed four of them to escape in separate instances.