No sub­sti­tute for proper polic­ing

The Observer - - News -

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.

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