The dangerous gap in policing

Police targets are often poorly thought out and measure the wrong things

Harriet Sergeant
Published: 25 May 2008

Never has the police service had so much money, so many officers and such access to technology. Yet never has public dissatisfaction with the police been so widespread. A report out this week reveals only four out of 10 believe the police can be relied upon to deal with minor crime. Less than half of those questioned by the British Crime Survey felt police were “there when they are needed”.

The report, carried out by the Home Office and considered the most authoritative in the country, shows a huge gap between how we want to be policed, how the police want to police us and how we are actually policed. Why is there this gap and what can be done about it?

Complaints against the police have doubled in the past three years. This big increase, according to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, is due to allegations from law-abiding, middle-class, middle-aged and retired people. These traditional supporters of the police have never felt so let down.

My neighbour is typical.

Robbed by three men in front of her child, she was punched repeatedly in the throat until she passed out. The initial response from the police was good but then she heard no more. A policeman spent three hours taking her statement. Seven months later he rang and asked her to come in and sign it. “I was really shocked. I thought he had done it long before.” Another detective made an appointment then never turned up. “Frankly it has been a very frustrating process and a total shambles,” she said.

Unlike Americans, the public here lack the power to get the policing they want. Neither the public nor their democratically elected local councillors and MP have any influence over the strategy of their local force, its funding or the appointment or removal of its chief constable. If the chief constable wants to close police stations against the wishes of the community, he can do so.

If he wants his response teams to spend the day chasing tabby cats, there is little to stop him.

Instead our 43 police forces in England and Wales are wholly accountable to the Home Office and the secretary of state – “the chief constable of chief constables”, as one police officer put it. Since the Police Act 1964, successive governments have accrued power to the centre. Law and order is a hot political issue. The government cannot be seen to fail. As in the NHS it exerts control through targets. Just as in the NHS these targets are often poorly thought out and measure the wrong things. The government tolerates dodgy data for political ends and coerces otherwise ethical public servants into unethical behaviour. Most of all, it stops the police giving the public the policing they want.

During my investigation of the police, I talked to officers from every level. Despite recent headlines, no one mentioned pay. Central control and its corroding effect was the issue. In order to score politically, they believe, the government has sacrificed their integrity, the integrity of the force and their relationship with the community. “The police,” said one superintendent sadly, “have become an extension of the government.”

Violent crime carried out by children and teenagers, for example, has increased by one-third over three years. At the trial of the five teenagers accused of her husband’s murder, Helen Newlove described how police failed to do anything about local gangs despite numerous complaints from residents.

The police are clear why this is happening. Rather than concentrating on persistent and violent youth offenders, they are busy creating crime to government orders. Minor crime, a retired inspector explained, is going on all the time. Police merely “pluck something out of the air”, searching the pockets of a student for cannabis, for example, in order to detect a crime and so fulfil targets. Another officer said: “We are bringing more and more people to justice – but they are the wrong people.”

Targets also miss the point of what the public want. The Home Office judges each police force by how many crimes it detects and clears up. The public want something different. They do not want crimes happening in the first place. They believe, like Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the Metropolitan police, that “the test of police efficiency” is “the absence of crime and disorder”. It is not “the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them”.

Sadly the absence of crime and disorder is not a government target. As one constable said: “I remember when it was a matter of pride to come back after a night shift to find no crimes had happened. Now all we are asked is why no one was locked up.”

Currently local taxpayers lack the power to question ever-higher policing costs. They have no say on the number of police walking their neighbourhood. They are unable to insist on even the basics of a good service.

I asked my local constable if we could receive a monthly crime report by e-mail. My question left him dumbfounded. It was out of the question, he said. American police forces issue weekly lists of all reported crime in the area. These alert residents and allow them to judge whether crime is high or not. Most importantly, the lists allow local residents to ask two vital questions: how are their local police responding? And when they do respond, how is the criminal justice system dealing with the criminals?

A local tax to pay for the basic command unit and a commander who is selected by and answerable to taxpayers, whether through local government or even direct elections, would give the public that power. It would certainly put an end to the dangerous politicisation of our police force and the alienation of the public.

The Public & the Police by Harriet Sergeant is published by Civitas

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