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THE LAW, THE POLICE AND THE PUBLIC

WHY THE LAW AND THE POLICE ARE FAILING THE PUBLIC

FRIDAY, 20 FEBRUARY 2009

 

In the UK we proudly declare that we have the best police force in the world. Of course, other countries may say the same of their police forces. But we are correct. Or, are we?

We certainly had one of the first police forces. Sir Robert Peel declared the Principles of Law Enforcement in 1829, when he inaugurated the London Metropolitan Police Force. He declared: "the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder." Note the words: "to prevent crime and disorder."

Today's police force owes little to crime prevention. Oh yes, there is usually a crime prevention officer in a police force. His job might be to advise you how to protect your home against burglars: double-glazing, door bolts, burglar alarms - hardly the main mission.

If you work with the UK police for any length of time, you find that they are a well-intentioned, dedicated, hard-working bunch. But they are not dedicated to going out on the street, patrolling, interacting with the public, and so on. No, they want to be in CID, hunting down criminals, or perhaps in the fraud squad, or on firearms duty, or out in the fast cars with their "blues and twos" -flashing blue lights and two-tone horns, to the uninitiated. Disparagingly, street patrols are for the wooden tops.

It wasn't so in Victorian London. The streets were thick with police officers on patrol, day and night, clear and foggy, wet and dry. They used their truncheons to spread calm by running them along iron railings, indicating all was well to the general public, and signalling to other police that they were all right. Banging their truncheons on the ground would bring other officers running to back them up in the event of trouble. Children would ask a policeman the time. Adults would entrust lost property to the constable on the corner. 

It worked. There was plenty of crime in Victorian London. But the police kept the lid on it. Much would-be crime was deterred by the ever-present "peeler," and street criminals was often "caught in the act" by several police converging on the ruckus from surrounding beats.

What changed? What went wrong? Well, fundamentally two things changed - the law and the mission for the police. It is not clear which changed first - perhaps they changed together. One thing seems certain; technology was the catalyst. In the middle of the 20th Century, radio and fast cars convinced police and politicians that foot patrols were no longer economic or practical, and that police could react to criminal acts rapidly and from a distance using radio communications and fast cars. This meant substantially less police out on the street, so saving money. And it also meant that a trigger was needed to alert the police; that would generally be the report of a crime.

So, the de facto mission of the police changed from crime prevention to crime reaction. Policemen no longer patrolled, no longer knew their beats, or the people who lived and worked on them, no longer gathered local intelligence, no longer presented the respected figure on the corner. And the law changed, too, so that (e.g.) vagrants could no longer be prosecuted. Police gave up providing local services such as lost property, telling children the time, ticking-off young hooligans, maintaining the Queen's Peace, and - most importantly - deterring crime. Essentially, our police stopped being Peace Officers. Nor were they on the spot to catch criminals in the act. 

Just how bad has it become? Well, there is something of a conspiracy of silence on that matter. The best that you can find out is that the average county in England and Wales solves some 20-25% of reported crime. That is not very good. It means that 75-80% of reported crime is never solved. 

It gets worse: much worse. The label "reported crime" neatly obscures the fact that, on best estimates, only some 10-25% of crime gets reported in the first place. So, if we do the sums, the police are managing to clear up some 10-25% of 20-25% of reported crime, or only 2 - 6.5% overall. That is pathetic. Now wonder there is a conspiracy of silence!

So, while we see both main political parties vying with each other to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" - whatever that is supposed to mean - neither of them really has a clue. Instead they suggest locking criminals up for longer. At the time of writing - it will change - Tories want to build 28,000 more prison places. Have they not noticed that having so many people in prison is not only very expensive, but is a social disaster for the nation? Each person in prison is a family torn apart. Each person creates a ripple of dependants on state benefits, in addition to the costs of keeping the offender in prison, where he cannot earn and cannot pay his taxes. Each criminal begets a probable legacy of criminality to his or her family. Each prisoner learns how to offend more effectively and efficiently the next time. And so on.

Come on you myopic politicians - it is not working! And putting ever more people into prisons with longer and longer sentences is a desperate excuse for a solution, as the US has already found out. The US has some 400+ per 100,000 head of population, and over one million black men, in jail at any time. What does that tell you? The land of the free has an issue with who gets to be free. Surely we do not want to go down that blind alley.

No, the solution is quite clear, as the public at large keep telling the politicians. The public want a return to old-style policing. They want real police on the beat, on patrol, on every street corner, night and day, in the towns, on the housing estates, around the railway stations - everywhere. The public want to stop being afraid: politicians, the law and the police are failing miserably to quell their fears. The public want their Peace Officers back.

Of course there are problems with returning to "old-style policing;" the term is used to denigrate peacekeeping. The police do not want it - they would have to give up their technology and fast cars. The politicians do not want it - it would cost considerably more than today's (vestigial) reactive policing - never mind that does not work. The civil libertarians do not want it: more police would clearly be a return to a "police state." The lawyers do not want it: if peacekeeping, as we might call it, worked, there would be a lot less work for the lawyers. And so on.

Let's look at those objections. There is no doubt that deterrence, or preventive policing would necessitate many more police, and that they would be out on the streets, highly visible, night and day. But that need not cost more, overall. A major reduction in crime and in people being locked up for several years at a time would reduce the number of prison inmates, the numbers of prisons and warders, the number of families on benefits, the numbers of lawyers and courts. A simple model shows that there is a balance that could be drawn such that there were some three times as many police as we have now (i.e. a rise from 130, 000 to 400,000), with a concomitant drop in prison population from some 130 per 100,000 of population to only c.35 per 100,000 head of population.

This appears to be an attractive solution. It pays for itself, it creates a calmer, safer, less fearful society, and it gives the public just what they want.

So, where are these additional police to come from? At present there is an organization called VSO - Voluntary Service Overseas. Young people, often in a gap year, volunteer their service to go to disadvantaged areas of the world and to help the people there improve their lot. 

Why could we not have, say, a Voluntary County Service? Each county in England and Wales could provide opportunities for young people, also during gap year(s) to improve the lot of the disadvantaged in their counties. Some of these young people would work on community projects, and some could be trained as police officers, with a view to serving in their county force for, say, up to two years. During their time as officers, they would be paid at the full rate, so enabling them to save money for their higher education. Alternatively, they might stay on in the police, if they so wished, or even return to the police after attending university.

In this way, we would swell the police ranks, and at the same time we would grow within our society a cadre of young men and women who had, in their pasts, been police officers with all that implies in terms of knowledge, responsibility, integrity, community spirit and dedication.

Peace Officers undertaking peace operations need not be some soft and woolly option, either. Today's Peace Officer would be a source of intelligence, and his activities would be partly intelligence led:

  1. He (or she) would be equipped with miniature cameras, to relay snapshots and live video back automatically to the co-ordination centre, where a live map of situations and activities would be created. 
  2. His communication system would provide navigation and identification information too, so that he could call up an electronic map of the area into a drop-down eyepiece, and see what was going on, and where other officers were in his vicinity. 
  3. He would know everyone on his patrol routes: the good, the bad and the ugly. He would know who associated with whom, and about what. 
  4. He would know the territory, potential escape routes, evasion tactics, choke points, meeting places, etc., and he would encourage the local communities to assist him in his work, providing eyes, ears and intelligence as needed.
  5. And, he would be armed with non-lethal weapons enabling him to defend himself, restrain others, and disable weapons and vehicles at a distance.

So, let us bring some sanity back into policing. Restore Peace Officers with their mission of crime prevention and let us return to a situation where we need have no fear on the streets, in our homes and going about our business...

© D K Hitchins 2017