Modern policing is a balancing act - at least in any democratic society. On the one hand, we have liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. On the other, we have criminals, taking advantage of, and preying on, their gentler, trusting neighbours. The police are there, supposedly, to catch the crooks. Too many police, too much strong-arm tactics, and there is a public outcry. "We are becoming a police state," goes up the banner cry
It never used to be like this. If you go back to the origins of policing in London, you find that the role of the police was to prevent crime, not to catch the criminal after he had perpetrated the crime. This is far from being a simple, or semantic, difference. Today, criminals are rarely prevented from the act of crime; instead, attempts are made to catch them, but only after the deed has been done. This, of course, leaves the victims less than happy, but the victims get little sympathy, even from the civil libertarians.
Why don't we emphasise the prevention of crime? The public would like to see policemen in uniform on foot, patrolling the streets, able to intervene, able to act on the spot, reassuring and reducing the level of fear that the weaker elements in society experience day-to-day. In particular, police officers on patrol deter crime and so prevent crime from happening and the individual from becoming a criminal.
Actually, today's policing is set up so that prevention of crime is effectively punished. The number of police that are established in any area is worked out by a formula which is based, inter alia, on the number of crimes in that area, and the reported crime clear-up rate. Prevent crime from happening, and the number of police will be cut. So, deterrence is neither valued nor considered, but rather, punished.
The illogicality of this is shown by the (apocryphal?) tale in which a village policeman was withdrawn, after several years of duty, because there was no crime in the village. Within a month, the village was awash with hooligans, terrorising the villagers. Remote police were useless; they took over an hour to respond, if at all. Was the village bobby reinstated? That would have meant that senior police would have had to admit to making a mistake...so, no, he was not.
Is there a solution? Well, yes, but it would necessitate a radical restructuring of the police, more manpower and some changes in the law. And, since the way to do these things is rather obvious, you have to suppose that they (government, specifically the Home Office in the UK) don't do it because they don't really want to... Think about it; in England and Wales, there are about 130,000 police. That makes about one officer per 400 of population. Actually, it's a lot worse that that. Police normally operate a 4-shift system, so that the working ratio of police to public is about 1 to 1,600. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that depending on the police for deterring or preventing crime is not going to work! They are far too thin on the ground.
It is true that preventing crime is more labour intensive than catching (or, more accurately, failing to catch) criminals after the event. But then, if you prevent crime from happening in the first place, you create a more peaceful society, one not beset with fear of crime, nor suffering from the disastrous personal aftermaths of crime. And, since you don't send nearly so many people to prison, the cost of apprehension, trial, imprisonment and rehabilitation will be slashed. Calculations show that money saved in this way can exceed the costs of the additional police that a crime prevention policy requires. So, its win-win isn't it?
Meanwhile, only some 25% of crimes are apparently reported, and of that 25%, only about 20% gets cleared up. By my calculations, then, the police are clearing up about 20% of 25%, or 5% of crime. Not very good. So bad, in fact, that it ought to be a national scandal. That it is not, is a measure of our current social impotence.
And, meanwhile, our prisons become more and more overcrowded and expensive to operate. More lives ruined. More families disrupted. There has to be a better way - and there is.
There is other ways to think about policing and police. Follow the links above to find out more about Blue Knights and their Guardian Angels.