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SCANDALS TARNISH IMAGE OF ADMIRED BRITISH BOBBY

SCANDALS TARNISH IMAGE OF ADMIRED BRITISH BOBBY

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Times aren't good for the British bobby, the police officers so admired and respected they never needed to carry a gun.

With disturbing regularity these days, their image is being tarnished by scandals that range from evidence-rigging to falsified crime-busting rates.The scandals have triggered alarm about the integrity of the nation's 146,000-member police force and have prompted some highly public soul-searching by senior officers.

Until recently, the criticism came chiefly from those considered left-wingers, whom the police could dismiss as chronic malcontents. Where corrupt officers were exposed, they were portrayed as a few ``bad apples' in a fundamentally healthy barrel.

Britons who follow the police developments closely say it is not the level of abuses that has increased, but the public's awareness of them. Still, the criticism is that the ``bad apple' excuse is no longer enough.

``If the public's confidence in the police is lost, I cannot see how it can be regained,' columnist Bernard Levin wrote in The Times. ``And if it is not regained, the damage to our entire way of life would be immense, so vital is the need for a force which can be relied upon.'

A public opinion poll published in November indicated the police are held in esteem by only 43 percent of Britons now, in contrast to 83 percent in 1959.

The worst case of what The Independent newspaper calls ``institutional rot' occurred in October, when the Court of Appeal freed four people serving life terms for bombing British pubs during a 1974 wave of Irish Republican Army attacks.

The court dropped the conviction of the ``Guildford Four' after seeing evidence that police from the Surry County force falsified records and lied in court.

In September, investigators found that police in Kent had increased crime-detection rates by pressing convicted prisoners to confess falsely to extra crimes. It led to the dismissal of a detective sergeant and heavy fines for six of his colleagues.

Public opinion was further inflamed by news that the policeman who exposed the corruption was being cold-shouldered by his colleagues and was threatened with dismissal when he demanded a transfer.

The British force is divided into 52 constabularies, mostly on county lines, and usually officers from one county are called in to investigate suspected abuses by another.

Commented The Independent: ``At the moment, with half a dozen of our major forces investigating one another, the police are in danger of running out of investigators to investigate the investigators.'

P.A.J. Waddington, a Reading University expert on police, said ``policing is inherently scandal-prone. What seems to vary is the extent to which people perceive problems as being scandals.'

Waddington said that police malpractice is ``substantially less than at any time in our history,' and the fact that police violence still makes headlines demonstrates it is still regarded as an unusual phenomenon.

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