No substitute for proper policing
The Met’s release of dashcam footage of police cars knocking moped thieves off their scooters has provoked a debate about the legitimacy of these tactics. Last Tuesday, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, raised her concerns on social media, prompting the home secretary, Sajid Javid, to respond on Twitter: “risk-assessed tactical contact is exactly what we need”.
Javid is not alone: the Met’s tactics have drawn widespread support. And some people may feel, against a backdrop of increasing violent crime and stabbings, and the shocking footage that emerged on Friday of around 100 teenagers attacking a police officer in Durham city centre, that we are in an age where the police must do whatever it takes to tackle crime and protect the public, even where that puts the lives of young criminals at risk. The Met claims that its tougher approach has led to a 36% drop in thefts involving mopeds in London in the last year.
That such tactics are even on the table is the sign of something fundamentally wrong at the heart of our policing system. Like every other of the state, policing has been impaired by cuts. Police officer levels are at their lowest since the 1980s. And in a damning report, the National Audit Office accused the Home Office of failing to even forecast the impact of losing 44,000 officers and staff since 2010.
What have falling officer numbers got to do with knife crime or moped theft, which are, after all, at least partly the product of social and economic factors? The more stretched police resources get, the more the principle of policing by consent, based on building trust through day-to-day relationships within the community, gets undermined. As Roger Graef argues on these pages, community policing enables officers to stay on top of who the young people involved in knife crime and moped thefts are. It empowers the police to engage in preventive work, building proactive relationships with parents and youth workers, so the police can intervene earlier, before serious crimes are committed and lives are lost.
The more a police force’s relationships with a community become based on hostile interactions – stop and search and arrests – and the less with positive neighbourhood policing, the less effective police can be in preventing serious crime.
And it is when community policing is stretched that the police feel pushed into the sort of aggressive, top-down tactics, such as running moped thieves off their bikes or the Met’s recent proposals for officers with visible guns to patrol residential areas, which undermine trust in the police even further. It is surely only a matter of time before a moped rider is in error seriously injured or killed. Few would disagree that if a moped rider is putting public and police lives at risk, for example, by riding on to the pavement that the police need to take measured action. But this cannot distract from asking questions about whether enough is being done to prevent this scenario occurring in the first place, nor about whether police officers using potentially lethal force in this manner will face sufficient accountability.
Meanwhile, the police cuts mean some types of crimes are simply being deprioritised. Take white-collar crime: the number of reported frauds has increased fourfold since 2011, yet the number of prosecutions has fallen by more than a quarter. And elsewhere in the criminal justice system, legal aid cuts have gravely reduced people’s access to basic justice, with growing numbers of people forced to represent themselves in court despite lacking the expertise to do so.
Private policing is a nascent but growing market in the UK and there is some evidence that vigilante justice is becoming more common, particularly in the case of “paedophile hunters”. The debate about what tactics police officers can and can’t legitimately use is important, but far too narrow a lens through which to view policing in austerity Britain. It’s no exaggeration to say that the government’s cuts are slowly but surely chipping away at the very rule of law on which our democracy and society depend.