Bad Policing has nothing to do with Austerity

If you were to ask people, “why do you think there is so much crime?” the vast majority of responses would circulate around one simple word: austerity. If you then went on to ask people how to solve the crisis, many will simply reach for the obvious answer; more money given to policing authorities to provide more officers.

It is a very simple narrative which has been fed to the public – budget cuts are the reason why crime is so high, and the only way to solve the problem is to invest more money into the system by putting more “bobbies on the beat.” It resonates with the public. Indeed, 10,000 more police officers on the streets was the pledge made by Labour at their conference last week.

However, whenever you pose a different question, such as, “why has crime increased at the same time as increases in budgets and police officer numbers?” it becomes more difficult to dissect. This is because it is an embarrassing truth which throws the “austerity causes more crime” argument into the gutter. No doubt, if you cut both budgets and police officer numbers, then it will have some impact on the levels of crime. You can not enforce the law, or hope to reduce crime without the boots on the ground. But as I have constantly pointed out, what police officers actually do, compared to how many there are, is a far more important issue.

The Purpose of Policing

When Sir Robert Peel created the modern police force, its ultimate purpose was crime prevention. To do this, officers were to patrol a certain area, on foot, regularly day and night. Crime was prevented because of the officers’ unique ability of observation and intelligence. He (mainly) was an independent body and mind, using his own instincts of hearsay and gut feelings to act upon intelligence. Significantly however, Peel understood this to be effective, the officer must also be observed by the public – a reassuring figure for the law abiding and a reminder to the wrongdoer that the law wasn’t far away. He ordered constables to wear a light blue uniform, so as to blend and mix with the modest colours of the public. Importantly, the constable was not to be armed in any way. The power of the officer was to be the same as that of a member of the public, putting the constable at one with the law, not above it. The concepts of “a citizen in uniform,” and “policing by consent,” were born. The constable was different from the armed, army type militia found in places like France and Spain. The “British Bobby,” was exactly that – British.

The benefits of preventative foot patrols are almost unrecognisable to the alien type of policing we see today. People got to see a regular face, daily. The officers knew their communities well. If they hadn’t have grown up in the areas they served, then they probably lived there instead – highly significant for those in rural communities, who have virtually been abandoned by the modern police force. The point here is this: the patrolling officer knew the hiding places, the gossip, the naughty kids (and their fathers), the prostitutes, the drug pushers, the money launderers and the troublemakers – vital in the poorest communities who have also been abandoned by the modern police force.

Whilst imperfect, this model of crime prevention served the British people well. Examine the crime figures leading up to 1970 and you will see that all recorded crime was low (compared to now). What you will also see is that crime has increased at a faster rate up to the present day than it did the hundred years before it. Why?

Increasing Crime

Well, one of the main reasons for this increase in crime is that preventive patrolling was disbanded by the Labour government in the late 1960’s. Faced with the new world after the war which included the introduction of radio’s, the increase in public and personal telephones (for 999 emergency calls), the increase in the use of road traffic (after the Beeching cuts) and the expanse of the cities, civil servants and Chief Constables saw preventative foot patrols as a hindrance to new innovation and thinking – it was considered old and outdated – it had to go to save money. The expanse of urban living meant that officers could simply not patrol the areas given to them, without the need of huge increases in officer numbers. Instead, officers were to be relieved of some of their duties, such as night patrols of factories, and placed in cars to patrol bigger areas with fewer officers. The idea of “the unit beat” was to respond to a crime being committed, rather than stopping it in the first place. It was a social experiment, of which there was no proof it would work. However, there wasn’t any proof that foot patrols had failed either – in fact, the contrary was true. Ironic that it would be a Labour government which saw a policing method, brilliantly effective in the poorest communities, as too expensive.

There is also irony in the fact that this experiment should actually lead to an increase in policing budgets. As we can see here, police officer numbers were just over 42,000 in 1901. Up until 1950, after two World Wars and the creation of our modern day welfare state, police numbers had only slightly increased to just over 63,000 – a modest increase of 20,000 police officers over a fifty year period – not too alarming when you consider the increase in population. A simultaneous analysis of the crime figures for the same period (which shows a general absence of crime compared to now) and the only logical conclusion to draw is that preventative foot patrols worked. What is startling however, are the figures after 1970, when the abolition of foot patrols experiment really started to surface. In 1970, the figure stood at just over 90,000 police officers, increasing to 125,000 in 1997. Police officer numbers in fact reached their greatest ever number in 2009, standing at just over 145,000. The number of police officers was recorded at 128,000 in 2017 (still 3000 more than when the last Labour Government came to power). If you examine the crime figures for each of the years stated, then you will clearly see that recorded crime has increased at the same time that police numbers have gone up. In the year 2009 for example, there were nearly 5 million recorded crimes, including a record number of homicides, despite there being the biggest number of police officers at any point in British policing history.

The question therefore is very simple. What proof do we have that more police officers will reduce crime by any significant level? The answer: zero.

But yet, despite the fact that we have a record number of police officers compared to any time in modern history, they seem more distant from us than at any time since they were created. But worse still, they are completely inept at doing anything substantial to reduce the outrageous criminal behaviour we now see and hear about daily.

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What is actually important is what I alluded to earlier; it’s what the police are actually doing that matters.

Because the nature of policing (not crime) changed in the 1960’s and 1970’s from a preventative force to a reactive one, the officer has morphed into a crime recorder. If they are to attend a crime after it has been committed, then their only role is to record what happened and investigate. The obvious result therefore is the paperwork – managed by “civilian staff,” who now make up most of the personnel in a police station. Similarly, much of this paperwork has been driven by the need for the officer to record his or her own actions in almost forensic detail, mainly driven out of fear of reprisal of the IPCC in any wrongdoing or misconduct case. One false move, an unsubstantiated claim of “racism” or heavy handedness against an offender and the officers’ career/next promotion is at stake. Bogged down in so much paperwork to simply justify their every move and decision, is it any surprise that so much crime is now ignored or undetected? Such is the fact that government scrutiny is focussed solely on identity and political correctness, the police have all but forgotten who they are and what they represent. This, driven primarily by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, has taken away the independence of the individual officer. He or she is now no longer able to make up their own minds, discipline someone on the street, use the rough hand of the law or take the side of the law abiding without the need to fill in a form which tells them what to do next. Protocol and political correctness have replaced common sense and distorted the clear line between right and wrong. When preventative foot patrols were prominent, the public were reassured because they saw a regular, friendly face who was on their side. Now, they see no faces at all, just the reflection of a high-viz jacket whizzing past in a police car or sitting in a McDonalds drive through.

Policing Budgets

If the officer is now a crime recorder rather than a crime preventer and Chief Constables become answerable to targets rather than their communities, then an increase in police staff is the inevitable outcome. Money and resources are needed to maintain the paperwork and so therefore budgets have to increase. This analysis of the current police workforce shows that in 2016 there were just under 125,000 police officers, out of an overall police staff of 200,000 from the 43 forces. Therefore, nearly 40% of the total staff of policing in England and Wales is dedicated to the bureaucratic arm of the police. How is this making us safer?

But what about the narrative that the police do not have enough officers on the ground? How often do we see, after every moped theft, terrorist attack or acid attack, the same arguments about police resources? Whenever these atrocities take place, there is always an abundance of officers available. Armed police, officers manning cordons, police horses, helicopters, fast cars. It is almost a statement of fact, that if current policing budgets had been applied to the police force and its methods of the 1960’s, then preventative foot patrols would not have been abandoned and crime would be much less, because the officers would have been out amongst us, preventing it from happening in the first place.

Why is it, that those who peddle the narrative that police budget cuts have driven up crime, will not see this argument or at least acknowledge it?

We have a reactive police force, rather than a proactive one. Foot patrols have been abandoned in favour of chasing criminals in fast cars. Great for the TV, but useless to me and you. The bottom line is this: what is the point of having a police officer, unless they are there to prevent crime? The armed police officers, the officers manning the cordons, the unmarked cars and the helicopters are all useless to the public. The police’s primary job is to deter crime, not solve it. So, if they’re not doing that, then what, exactly, are they doing?

The Disappearance of the Beat Bobby

The experiment of the removal of the police force from the streets of Britain since the 1970’s has been evidently shown by the closure of police stations across the country. The Daily Mirror earlier in the summer reported that 600 stations had closed since 2010, and seemingly wished to blame this on austerity. However, the truth is police stations have been closing at a great rate since the police changed to a reactive force. The rise in radios and the 999 emergency service gives the police the excuse to attend the scene of a crime after the offence, rather than observing and being observed throughout their community. Police stations played a huge part in this aspect of crime prevention, simply because the public where never far away from a constable and neither was the criminal. A huge number of these stations were closed during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, as a way of galvanizing extra funds for the police by selling off the properties. Stranger still, many of these stations were closed under the previous Labour government.

The sad fact is that with the removal of preventative foot patrols and the closure of police stations, the police have become a faceless militia. We don’t know them, and they don’t know us. Officers are here now to simply record a crime and try to solve it. It is a useless endeavor because the crime, the hurt, the misery, the suffering of the victim has already happened, and can’t be undone. Worse, it is the criminal who benefits because there is no visible deterrence to their behaviour. That is the real reason why police numbers have increased alongside crime – there is so much of it, and an increasing numbers of officers and police staff are required to solve it. The circle is never broken, and the only thing people call for is more and more money to try and “fix” the problem.

Removing the police from our streets 50 years ago was plainly a mistake. As with all errors of judgement, it is possible to admit you were wrong and return to a period when it was clear that preventative patrolling worked. Indeed, a 2016 report from the Department of Criminology at Cambridge University came to realise that foot patrols worked, and were much better than the “fire brigade” policing we have currently. It is a proven method. Question is, which party has got the political will to admit the experiment has failed?