Governance, legitimacy and authority: new book explores attitudes of police chiefs

by | Feb 16, 2022 | 0 comments

Dr Ian Shannon, former deputy chief constable of North Wales Police, has recently published a book exploring how chief police officers understand the right of police to exercise power – Chief Police Officers’ Stories of Legitimacy: Power, Protection, Consent and Control (Palgrave, 2022).

Here, Ian discusses his research and the risks of losing the balance between accountability and independence.

I recently completed a study of how chief police officers in England and Wales understand the right of police to exercise power. The chief officers who were interviewed shared three broad understandings, although these can be interpreted as confused, conflicted and cumulatively convenient in supporting them in asserting a privileged position from which they can pursue their preferences and priorities for the use of police power.

Protection, Consent, Law – and Governance

The first understanding related to a moral duty to use power to protect people, particularly those deemed to be most vulnerable. The second deployed accounts of policing by consent, which were wide-ranging and involved societal norms and expectations of policing being met. The third was based on law and on the formal oversight and political direction (or governance) of police and the parameters this provides for the legitimate use of power. In this short blog post, I will focus on the issue of governance.

Interviewees asserted that formal governance systems are important for constructing legitimacy, and governance was frequently discussed in conjunction with a moral duty to protect people and policing by consent. There were tensions within the narratives, as whilst governance was viewed by the interviewees as a vital component in constructing legitimacy there was considerable resentment of the mechanisms and manner of oversight and an apparent antipathy for some of their overseers. But the most worrying finding was that recent governance reforms have heightened chief police officers’ anxieties about their job security, career prospects and operational autonomy.


The greatest anxieties of interviewees related to the roles and responsibilities of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), introduced by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, and the few restrictions placed on their powers, which include their ability to recruit and remove chief constables.  Other institutions, notably Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) and the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the Home Office were also adding to chief police officers’ sense of precariousness. This perception of precariousness was not only voiced by chief constables, it was also expressed by assistant and deputy chief constables, and the equivalent ranks in London, who were interviewed.

Many interviewees suggested these anxieties made them less likely to use power – particularly to challenge their overseers, or in circumstances which might provoke scrutiny. They felt vulnerable due to their perception of threats to their careers posed by multiple and unreasonable scrutiny. The following quotations from two chief constables do not adequately capture the angst that emerged in the tone and context of the interviews, but they reveal some of this insecurity:

I had a tortuous first year … it certainly feels a lonely place. … the performance indicators don’t look good, and people are getting worried and the perfect storm because everyone is on your case, there is a real temptation to doubt your own personal judgement.

[I have] been a chief since [redacted]. It feels like 400 years … you’re making different – different, kind of, calls on the power you have got because of some of that pressure to be seen to be accountable … I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t affect you.

Together these anxieties may sap chief police officers’ confidence, leading to them failing to resist partisan political directions that undermine civil liberties or prioritise the needs of the powerful over those of the marginalised. In my book, I examine how this may also contribute to a failure to challenge policies that lead to ineffective policing or neglect the priorities of many people. I argue this is seen in the decline of the priority given to neighbourhood policing and safety on the roads and in failures to tackle fraud, and that this relates to the wider discourse around the protection of people deemed to be most vulnerable. In short, chief police officers’ anxieties about the ways in which they are overseen and given political direction have consequences which endanger police legitimacy.

Aiming for Accountable and Effective Police Leadership

A balance needs to be struck between desirable democratic direction and oversight of chief police officers and their operational independence. Individuals and institutions responsible for directing and overseeing chief officers also need to be held to account. There is a risk that chief officers who feel precarious become increasingly cautious, indeed risk averse, in their use of power. Whilst caution is arguably preferable to cavalier use of power, in surplus it can be debilitating. Failures to use power may, it is contended, be as damaging as excessive use of power. Chief officers need the confidence to use their power, and what remains of the protection provided by operational independence, to resist partisan policing objectives being imposed, a concern raised by the Final Report of the Royal Commission on the Police (1962).

Constructive, Thoughtful, Democratic Governance

Relationships between chief officers and those responsible for their oversight should not be cosy, but nor should they be marred by persistent conflicts and resentments. I contend these relationships should be characterised by constructive conversations, temperate and thoughtful challenge, and democratic direction. Consequently, it is suggested that these relationships should be moderated by strengthening the roles of police and crime panels and HMICFRS, particularly in relation to decisions to recruit and remove chief officers of all ranks. Whilst arbitrary behaviour and unfair decisions may be relatively rare, more protection is needed. Judicial reviews and four yearly electoral verdicts on the performance of police and crime commissioners are insufficient safeguards. A thorough review of the governance of policing and of the concept of operational independence might improve these relationships, and support chief officers to work effectively in the interests of the people they serve.


About the Author

Ian Shannon recently completed an ESRC fellowship at the University of Leeds, he received his PhD at the University of Liverpool in 2018. From 1981 to 2013, he served as a police officer in three forces, and he retired as a deputy chief constable. He was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal in 2013. Thanks to the ESRC Fellowship, and with support from colleagues in the N8PRP, particularly Professors Stuart Lister and Adam Crawford at the University of Leeds, Ian has written a book which explores how chief police officers understand the right of police to exercise power, now available:

Recent Publications:

Shannon, I. (2022) Chief Police Officers’ Stories of Legitimacy: Power, Protection, Consent and Control. Palgrave Macmillan.

Shannon, I. (2021). ‘Democratic oversight and political direction of chief police officers in England and Wales: implications for police legitimacy.’ Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice. Vol. 15, Issue 2, June 2021, Pages 912-926.