Yard chief: politicians have left us lagging behind the bad guys
BRITAIN’S most senior police officer says today that the Government is leaving police “hamstrung” in the fight against violent crime.
Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, says the Home Office has “stepped back a lot” and needs to show “greater leadership”.
Ms Dick says the failure to introduce laws which allow officers to use facial recognition technology to catch “bad guys” has left her officers “hamstrung”. She adds that the battle against violent crime would be easier with funding for more officers.
She makes the comments in an interview with The Daily Telegraph amid a debate between the Government and police chiefs over the link between cuts in funding and rising crime.
This week the Metropolitan Police investigated its 120th murder of the year, three more than in the whole of last year. It prompted Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, to urge Scotland Yard to “get the situation under control”.
However, Ms Dick says that the Home Office, when led by Theresa May, left police to fend for themselves.
She says: “I do see a greater leadership role for the Home Office than the one they have chosen to take recently. Three years ago there was a sense from the then home secretary that you, the police, should transform yourselves and there are areas where that is really difficult. It has got to be led.”
Ms Dick cites facial recognition cameras, which can scan live video footage and compare the images against a list of offenders. The cameras have prompted concern among civil liberties groups and are not authorised by the Home Office. Ms Dick says this gives criminals an advantage over her officers.
It’s hard to disconcert Cressida Dick, such is her air of steely calm, of assured professionalism. It’s hard even to challenge her, so engaging is her manner, so broad the smile that frequently animates her otherwise pensive face. But when she is accused of letting the streets of London become a battlefield where murderers aren’t deterred by her police officers nor burglars caught by them, her hackles do rise.
“I think that is a fairly outrageous way of putting it,” says the 57-year-old Metropolitan Police Commissioner. “I absolutely refute the idea that we are losing a battle.”
Regular grim headlines can suggest otherwise. We are talking in a police command station in Lambeth – a violent borough in a violent city. In the days before our interview, four men have been stabbed to death in south London. In the hours after, there is yet more killings, bringing the total so far for 2018 to 120, four more than the whole of 2017. “When Will It End?” a local paper pleads on its front page.
“I think there should be the outrage there is,” she adds. “It appals me that young people are killing other young people. It is disgusting and awful.”
In the same breath she rattles off statistics about “record numbers” of knives being taken off the streets, of operations against the drug gangs responsible for much of the violence, about reductions in moped crime. But she knows it is murder figures that most shape perceptions about what she calls “this huge seething city”. “We have,” she concedes, “had the most terrible week”.
It is a climate of crime in which young men make music videos brazenly boasting of hyper-violent exploits, then post them online. Yet Ms Dick insists that police still have the fear factor for violent criminals. “Absolutely we do. Presence of police, interaction with police, stop and search by police, arrest by police is actually a really big deterrent from behaving in the way they were.”
Such bullish words can appear incongruous coming from the 5ft 4in frame of a bookish-looking woman known to all who are senior enough as “Cress”. But there is little doubt that Ms Dick – the daughter of Oxford academics – is respected within and without the force. She succeeded Sir Bernard Hogan-howe (now Lord Hogan-howe), taking up office last April after a two-year stint officially working “with the Foreign Office”. It was not a move of her choice – after 31 years working through the Met, she was shunted off the counter-terror (CT) job she loved by Hogan-howe.
She still talks unselfconsciously of the distinction between grizzled CT officers “who really understand things from a lifetime of policing” and the “super-bright, super highly educated” people at the Foreign Office. But it is lost on no one that she, a private school and Balliol College-educated gay woman who might more easily have slotted into the latter covert world, has successfully proven herself in the male-dominated world of uniformed policing.
In the accomplishment of that, she found a formidable champion in Theresa May. So, it is a surprise to hear Ms Dick talk disparagingly about the Met being hung out to dry by “the then Home Secretary” – about a failure of “real central drive and leadership” from the May-run Home Office making life “quite difficult” for a police service struggling to pivot from old-school investigation to digital detection. “Three years ago there was a sense from the then Home Secretary that you, the police, should transform yourselves and there are areas where that is really quite difficult I think… it has all got to be led.”
She mentions parameters for the use of biometrics – unique physical
‘In the most serious crimes, we get our man, so if they become a fugitive we will find them even if they go abroad. And we do’
‘If I had more officers, I would put them out on the street, and put them against violent criminals. I think that it would have an impact’
and behavioural characteristics that can be used for identification – as an area requiring the kind of national, political leadership utterly at odds with the fragmented, local structure of the British police and its different forces. And, to listen to her, the May-era problems have not disappeared under Sajid Javid. “I think the Home Office has stepped back a lot… I do see a greater leadership role for the Home Office than the one they have chosen to take recently.”
Her comments will reopen the debate about whether policing in the UK would be better off with a single, national force. “That,” she says, “might make some things easier. But these are big political decisions.” She laments, for example, difficulties with “integration of intelligence databases – how you do that in such a politically dispersed and governed system is hard”.
Nor is it a mere bureaucratic problem. She compares the Met’s undisputed national leadership role on counter-terror operations (“The system is absolutely fabulous”) to the more muddled liaison between local forces and the National Crime Agency in tackling gangsters (“The structures we have overall probably don’t serve the fight against serious organised crime as well as they should”).
However, it is in technology where she feels national political leadership is most sorely lacking. She would dearly love to press ahead with greater use of facial recognition techniques, that can automatically pick faces out of live video footage and compare them against lists of known offenders. The technology is controversial, not least because it currently has a high failure rate. But Ms Dick’s complaint is about today’s shaky political framework underpinning its use, putting her officers at a critical disadvantage against “the bad guys – organised criminals and hostile states”.
“We are finding ourselves quite hamstrung by a quite complex regulatory system, a quite complex legal framework,” she says. Those “bad guys”, by contrast are “filling their boots with this technology as we speak. I am very keen that the law keeps up with technology and I don’t feel that we are working in a tremendously enabling environment at the moment”, she complains.
But she is clear that the Met is making great strides in other areas. Thousands of mobile devices have now reached officers on the streets. Officers leading operations can now downlink footage from helicopter cameras live to their phones. “We are moving really fast,” says Ms Dick.
Indeed, she has no doubt that the ubiquity of CCTV footage, biometrics, communications data and the like could already allow police to identify offenders “in one day rather than 24 days”. The vast availability of data means that police now “hardly rely at all” on witnesses and confessions.
And as the trails of data we all leave behind grow larger, certain crimes will become effectively impossible to get away with. Kidnap is almost there. “The Met is the world leader in kidnaps,” she says, “because we use technology really well… it is very hard to kidnap someone in this country and get away with it. In the most serious crimes we get our man, so if they become a fugitive we will find them even if they go abroad. And we do.”
Yet ditching old-school methods has its downside. Less than 5 per cent of burglaries end with a charge. Ms Dick is clear. “If we have got no CCTV, no forensics at all, then we will, relatively early on, say ‘Sorry – we are not going to get a successful investigation’.”
She prioritises violent crimes, but does not attribute the rise in violence exclusively to reduced police numbers. “However, I do think there is a link. If I had more officers I would put them out on the street and I would put them against violent criminals, and I think it would have an impact.” To listen to her, the case for greater police funding is now unanswerable, but she is not shrill about it. That is not her way. Her view on cash is simply the considered assessment of a public servant who appears supremely capable, who speaks her mind and whose logical, joined-up thinking should offer the Met a decent chance of transforming not just crime statistics, but the force itself.
Cressida Dick, above, says police can still deter violent criminals; top left, Met forensics officers erect a crime scene tent after the fatal stabbing of a man in south-east London last Sunday
A police CCTV control room, above, part of a raft of new technology, including biometric identification, that Ms Dick says must form a part of modern policing