Interpreting by consent

This PhD journey has enabled me to look closely at the world of policing, introducing me to issues faced when policing a diverse population and the need to maintain legitimacy. There are clear messages being promoted from police forces across the UK and it is a message that values diversity. This shift in attitude is accepted as key to achieving cooperation and trust from different social groups; cooperation with the police is associated with better outcomes and reduced crime levels.


With every new text I read on policing diversity I find myself drawing parallels with the world of interpreting, where similar issues or concerns are being discussed as those being considered by criminologist and sociologists. Here in the UK, like most western societies, our law enforcement agencies are permitted to exist through a mandate known as “policing by consent”. It is this concept that has piqued my interest. Could it also be applied to interpreting? Interpreting by consent.

The issue being flagged by the public is that the police officer, who is of a junior rank, is likely to command the greatest amount of power. As Reiner explains, it is these rank-and-file officers who have the most direct contact with members of the public on the streets.

It is commonplace of the now voluminous sociological literature on police operations and discretion that the rank-and-file officer is the primary determinant of policing where it really counts: on the streets. As James Q. Wilson put it, ‘the police department has the special property… that within its discretion increases as one moves down the hierarchy’ (J. Wilson, 1968: 7) (Reiner, 2010, p. 116).

Reiner goes on to explain that rank-and-file officers often act in invisible conditions, away from the gaze of their supervisors. I see some strong parallels with interpreting and the challenge of accountability. How can we, the public – including people who are deaf, be confident that officers (and interpreters) are behaving ethically and appropriately? What are the public safeguards? How can we be sure the public still consent to being policed (or interpreted)? The police have introduced a number of reforms in recognition of these concerns.


The philosophy of policing by consent means the role of the police is continuously evaluated and stress tested by campaigners and the government. The police force has to continually reflect on its public status. If public trust and confidence are being diminished, what changes are needed for the police to remain a legitimate force?

The concept of policing by consent emerged through debates on how to establish a formalised police force, men in uniform tackling crime and disorder. This debate stepped up to another level when the first police force was introduced in the city of Glasgow in the summer of 1800. The Glasgow Police Bill received Royal Assent, creating the first official police force in the UK (Police Museum, retrieved 28/11/16).


The introduction of a police force in Glasgow changed the way law enforcement was organised. Men in police uniform were instructed by an approved authority to patrol the streets, bring those guilty of a crime before the magistrate and prevent crime from occurring (Living Heritage, retrieved 28/11/16). This so-called “guardians of civilians” approach to law and order had been heavily debated by members of parliament on several occasions throughout the late 18th century and early 19th century. The struggle for Georgian politicians was how to deliver a more formal and organised approach to law enforcement since the rising level of criminal activity was a matter of public concern (Metropolitan Police). The opposition to establishing a police force doubted its ability to be impartial and untouchable by corruption or manipulation. The concept of a police force gathered momentum after a long campaign sponsored by the then Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel.


Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet

5 February 1788 – 2 July 1850

Peel finally saw his bill accepted in 1829 (Metropolitan Police retrieved 28/11/16). The establishment of the Metropolitan Police consolidated support for the concept of a full-time professional policing organisation; unarmed men in uniform accountable to a government official. Nine Peelian priciples were established and became regarded as fundamental to today’s policing strategy.

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary, of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

The police force in the UK has, for some, become a national symbol of stability and security. However, this look back over the establishment of the police tells us how the police as an organisation had to earn public consent and has always had to undergo intense public scrutiny in return for this public consent to remain alive. Delivery of policing is riddled with conditions to curb the over use and unregulated use of the power bestowed on them (Reiner, 2010; Rowe, 2014).

So my question to you is… What nine “Peelian principles” should we, as interpreters, consider?  What would the core measures of our profession look like?


Parliament UK. (n.d.). Creating the nation’s police force. Retrieved 13 September 2017, from

Police Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved 13 September 2017, from

Reiner, R. (2010). The politics of the police. Oxford University Press.

Rowe, M. (2007). Policing Beyond Macpherson. Routledge.


One thought on “Interpreting by consent

  1. The police are very aware of the policing by public consent principle, as evidenced by the host of reality police TV programmes showing how they deal with the public, many of whom are very nasty people indeed. Yes, it informs the public of what a hard job policing is, but there’s probably a political angle too. How can government cut policing costs when faced with the horrors of criminality and anarchy!

    Contrast this with the approach of interpreters to the sight of an unexpected video camera. In my experience many (?most) interpreters become very defensive, and present reasons not to be videoed – I don’t have enough prep (& may do a lousy job?), people who aren’t here will judge me unfairly because they can’t experience the bad acoustics, bright sunshine in my face, and so on.

    So the only judges of the interpreter’s work and behaviour are those there in the situation. Usually, neither Deaf people or non-signers present will be able to evaluate the service, unless it is really terrible. Then if a complaint is made, where’s the hard evidence? It’s the complainant’s word against the interpreter’s.

    Co-workers should be in a position to support a complaint, but who likes making waves?

    In theory I think interpreters should follow the current approach of the police, and welcome every opportunity to be video’d and held to account.

    However I can see confidentiality issues getting in the way. But it’s interesting that the police can film very private events (or at least events most would want kept private), but confidentiality stops interpreters. Why the difference?


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