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Celeb pics row shows ACPO in frame for shake-up

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Comment Allegations by the Mail on Sunday that the UK police may be making improper use of speed camera pics were dismissed last week as wholly inaccurate by ACPO affiliate Road Safety Support (RSS).

Nonetheless, the story raises further questions as to the role and democratic accountability of the police when they form up into non-statutory bodies such as ACPO.

The Mail allegations appear to highlight an issue raised last month in El Reg, of police allowing into the public domain pictures of individuals accused of a crime before the courts had actually pronounced on their guilt or innocence. Instances cited included cases involving comedian Jimmy Carr and footballer Jermaine Defoe.

The guilty party was said to be ACPO affiliate and independent private company RSS Ltd. Except it was not guilty.

Debunking the original story, a spokeswoman for RSS told us: "Both photographs used in this presentation were from cases that had been fully dealt with at court.

"The picture of Jermaine Defoe’s Range Rover, which was claimed to be part of a pending mobile phone case from Essex awaiting sentence, is in fact from a speeding prosecution in Portsmouth. Defoe pleaded guilty to this allegation and was sentenced on 4 January, 2010. The photograph of his Ferrari related to a speeding offence in St Albans dealt with on 4 August, 2009.

"The picture of Jimmy Carr’s vehicle related to a speeding offence for which he was sentenced on 12 January, 2010."

So that’s all right then?

Except this incident does highlight a further fragmenting of responsibility when it comes to policing in the UK. We have noted in the past how the UK has deliberately opted not to have a national police force, with national policies – and in that context, the very existence of ACPO is theoretically at odds with government policy.

The official ACPO line is that it is no more than a means to enable co-operation and development of common strategies across police forces, and that police constables remain at all times responsible to their local police authorities. Our experience in recent months has been that questions directed to local police forces in respect of statements made by individual police chiefs may be bounced up to ACPO because they are the "national liaison" for a particular issue.

RSS represents yet another step away from local accountability. On the plus side, RSS is filling a gap created when the Department of Transport decided it would no longer provide support for national road safety initiatives. Its existence is a direct response to the way in which some solicitors are seen as having turned the defence of high profile driving offenders into a business – and provides expertise above and beyond what is usually available to the prosecution.

As RSS told us: "Road Safety Support (RSS) provides expertise and invaluable advice on all road safety matters, including assistance with complex speeding cases, to Road Safety Partnerships, Highway Authorities and Roads Policing teams. RSS is a not-for-profit organisation and does not make money out of its activities."

RSS is headed by South Yorkshire Police Chief Constable Meredydd Hughes and, according to the Mail, receives subscriptions of about £900,000 a year from speed camera partnerships. They also allege that the organisation earns large sums – possibly as much as £5m - administering "implementation and ongoing management" for the National Driver Offender Retraining Scheme.

RSS remains a limited company: it is affiliated to ACPO and follows all ACPO and police guidance and policies in its work. However, their spokeswoman added: "Ultimately RSS is accountable to its members."

The coalition govenment has already demonstrated a willingness to dismantle national policing structures, such as the National Policing Improvement Agency, and has declared itself in favour of introducing more localism, through the direct election of police chiefs.

These, and other related issues, look likely to feature in the consultation currently taking place on Policing in the 21 Century – open until 20 September. It is unlikely that ACPO will ever disappear: however, a fundamental restructuring of how policing is co-ordinated at the national level could well be on the cards. ®

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