Cameron’s Intelligence Crisis – part 2

On to part 2 of my look at the Tory’s mini-manifesto on crime, and to yet more carping about bureaucracy and Bobbies on the beat:

1.3 Permanent police visibility

A permanent police visibility on the streets is by far the most effective deterrent against crime.

Currently the average police officer spends more time on paperwork than he or she spends on patrol. This is because the Government has imposed a highly onerous burden of bureaucracy on police forces. The Home Office’s Police Performance Assessment Framework requires the police to carry out 23 Baseline Assessments and to record and report on 32 Statutory Performance Indicators.

The Police Federation launched its 2007 conference by highlighting the way in which Government targets – particularly the pressure to issue Penalty Notices for Disorder (PNDs) – waste police time and distort their priorities. Jan Berry, Chairman of the Federation, said:

“As a result of Government diktats, the service has been reduced to a bureaucratic, target- chasing, points-obsessed arm of Whitehall. A child who threw buns at a bus? A man who threw water over his girlfriend? And a man caught in possession of an egg … “with intent to throw”. These are hardly weapons of mass destruction! All these cases should have been dealt with by a quiet word and good old-fashioned common sense… How can we have a system that discourages police officers from investigating crimes properly, from doing what they know and believe is right, and encourages them to take short-cuts and issue PNDs like confetti?”

A Conservative Government will order an immediate review of the police performance management regime in order to significantly and quickly improve the presence and visibility of police officers on our streets. As a significant step towards this goal, a large number of national targets on local forces should be scrapped.

Which targets, exactly, does Cameron propose to scrap?

The target’s to which the Tories refer fall in seven categories, starting with the obvious, reducing crime, for which targets are set for the following areas:

Comparative risk of personal crime
Comparative risk of household crime
Domestic burglary rate
Violent crime rate (excluding harassment PNDs)
Robbery rate
Vehicle crime rate
Life threatening and gun crime
Volume Crime Reduction

Anyone fancy suggesting which of the targets on that list is a bad idea and should be scrapped? No, I thought not…

This is one of the paradoxes of modern policing. If you look at that list you’d have to concede that reducing the level of crime in all those categories is not just a good idea but pretty much what you’d consider to be the core business of policing, particularly as the most obvious way of hitting these targets is by nicking villains. And yet these are also the kinds of criminal activity in which, other than in the case of street robbery, high visibility neighbourhood policing, i.e. putting the eponymous ‘Bobby on the beat’, has the most limited impact.

High visibility policing serves two main purposes.

First it provides the public with a reassurance. People, by and large, see the police patrolling an area on foot and it makes them feel a bit better and a little bit safer, which is why this kind of policing is frequently referred to as ‘reassurance policing’.

Second, this kind of policing is pretty good at deterring low-level nuisance type crime, things like petty vandalism and criminal damage, graffiti and harassment; the kind of activities that generally manage to piss people off and makes them feel insecure and a bit threatened in their local neighbourhood.

What its markedly not so good at is dealing with is the kinds of serious crime that tend to grab all the headline and prompt demands that ‘something must be done’ – that something inevitably being calls for more high visibility neighbourhood policing, which isn’t really very good at dealing with…

You get the picture?

What the public says it want, in terms of policing, and what it needs in terms of tackling the kinds of crime that tends to spawn demands for more high visibility policing can be very different things, because it not just paperwork that takes police officers away from the business of patrolling the streets; investigating crimes and arresting criminals does the same thing.

Which brings us neatly on the the next set of targets, which cover much of the business end of investigating crime and dealing with criminals and include:

Offences brought to justice rate
Overall sanction detection rate
Domestic violence arrest rate
Managing Critical Incidents and Major Crime
Tackling Serious & Organised Criminality
Volume Crime Investigation
Improving Forensic Performance
Criminal Justice Processes

Now, on the face of it, there isn’t too much there to be quibbling about there either, except that when it comes to the business of the ‘Overall sanction detection rate’, which is what the quoted comments from Jan Berry are referring to, then Cameron may well have a point, as is, perhaps, better explained by ‘Another Constable‘:

Of course, the average Joe has no idea what sanction detections are, but I’m sure everyone will agree that if they are up, it’s a good thing. A sanction detection is where something is done with the offender – be that a charge, a summons, a penalty notice for disorder, a police caution/reprimand/final warning. We don’t have to get a conviction for it to be classed as a detection, which also slightly baffles me, but that’s another question too. But on the whole, something positive is being done to a suspected offender, which I suppose is indeed a good thing.

I, however, have a couple of issues with sanction detections. My most overriding complaint is that they somehow negate certain arrests in the eyes of the bosses (police and Government). You see, one of my favourite types of arrest is a drink driver. I absolutely relish locking them up. Firstly there is the obvious benefit of getting a potential killer off the streets (made doubly fun if they also turn out to be unlicensed or uninsured so I can also have their vehicle off), but secondly they are a very easy arrest to process. No requirement to spend at least an hour onto the CPS, not normally any need to go to court, as the majority plead guilty as pretty much all are caught bang-to-rights, and a simple file and statement. I’m also trained to do the evidential machine in custody so I can easily be self-sufficient when dealing with these. No need for advice or assistance.

However, the statisticians would much rather I give out a £30 fixed penalty to a 10 year old for drawing on a wall, or carving their initials into a tree, or some other such crime. And that, is the crux of it. Crime. The latter is a crime, recorded as criminal damage. So, by issuing a fixed penalty, I have scored a “sanction detection” – yay me! Unfortunately, drink driving is not recorded as a crime. Don’t ask me why, I have absolutely no idea. It is a recordable crime, in that you will get your photo, DNA and fingerprints taken, and yet it’s not recorded as a crime. Beats me!

So, I can make 5 arrests a week for drink driving, but I’ll never be popular because I haven’t scored any sanction detections. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to undervalue the juvenile arrests for criminal damage, but surely locking up drink drivers is just as important (I personally believe much more so), and this in my view is where the focus on “sanctions” is misplaced. Another example is drunk and disorderly. Walk around pissed swearing your mouth off, you get locked up for D&D. Nowadays a penalty notice for disorder will be issued in custody. No crime will be recorded however, so we don’t get a detection. Now, if you’re not pissed, but swear your mouth off, you’ll get done for Section 5 Public Order Act 1986. You’ll get a penalty notice in custody, but more importantly a crime is recorded, and therefore a detection is scored. This leads to pressure to lock up for Section 5 rather than D&D, but guidance from CPS is that drunkenness is a defence to S.5, so if drunk lock up for D&D. You can see the conflict already.

So what seems clear here is that the targets for ‘sanction detection’ are actually distorting police priorities, not because having targets for such things are necessarily bad in themselves but because the manner in which different offences are classified for the purpose of these targets is, well, seemingly rather illogical and certainly more than a little confusing.

Cameron’s suggestion is that we simply start scrapping targets, but if you look a little more closely at what Another Constable is saying then it should be obvious that this ‘target culture’ is less a problem in its own right than a symptom of a much deeper and more fundamental set of issues that Cameron not only appears to ignore but which actually sits right at the heart of his proposals.

What’s most apparent is that there is a clear difference of opinion here between a serving police officer and those he describes as ‘the statisticians’ – who, in actuality are doing no more than working to policies determined by politicians – as which crimes are most deserving of his attention and, even, as what does (and does not) constitute a sanctionable (and therefore recordable) crime.

As Another Constable cheerfully admits:

…one of my favourite types of arrest is a drink driver. I absolutely relish locking them up. Firstly there is the obvious benefit of getting a potential killer off the streets (made doubly fun if they also turn out to be unlicensed or uninsured so I can also have their vehicle off), but secondly they are a very easy arrest to process.

And his reasoning is clear, understandable and based on a rational premise, that of the offenders potential to cause serious harm to others. It’s a view that not only makes sense but that many would consider to be no more than common sense and is, I would very strongly suspect, fully representative of the mass body of opinion to be found amongst police officers generally – priority number one is to protect the public from harm, and the more harmful the offence the greater priority it should be given.

Against this, the emphasis expressed by these targets, as indicated here:

…the statisticians would much rather I give out a £30 fixed penalty to a 10 year old for drawing on a wall, or carving their initials into a tree, or some other such crime. And that, is the crux of it. Crime. The latter is a crime, recorded as criminal damage. So, by issuing a fixed penalty, I have scored a “sanction detection” – yay me! Unfortunately, drink driving is not recorded as a crime. Don’t ask me why, I have absolutely no idea. It is a recordable crime, in that you will get your photo, DNA and fingerprints taken, and yet it’s not recorded as a crime. Beats me!

…is skewed towards the kind of low-level nuisance criminality that tends to be very limited in terms of causing direct harm to the public, but which disproportionately tends to colour their perceptions of both their local area and of policing generally.

None of this is actually about bureaucracy at all – some degree of bureaucracy is unavoidable simply because the police have to keep records, take statements, collate evidence and do a whole raft of other things besides because we have a criminal justice system that requires them provide evidence to secure convictions. And as the challenge for politicians, policy makers and for the police themselves is that of keeping the amount of bureaucracy to an acceptable level while ensuring that the things that are important to the workings of the criminal justice system are documented to the necessary standards required to secure convictions when they are merited by the evidence.

What this is about is a direct conflict between ‘objective’ policing; the setting of priorities for action and the allocation of resources based on rational criteria and supported by evidence, which necessarily results in resources being target toward crimes that cause the greatest harm and into areas where there is the greatest incidence of criminal activity, and ‘political’ policing, in which priorities are determined subjectively according the vicissitudes of public opinion and public perceptions which may, and very often are, entirely out of step with reality.

Why, for example, is drunk driving not recorded as a crime for the purposes of measuring ‘sanction detections’?

One possible, and some would argue obvious, reason for this is that targets, and particularly targets tied directly to financial incentives, alter people’s priorities and, therefore, their behaviour. It’s a matter of basic self-interest; given a choice of possible actions most people will quite naturally take the options that deliver the greatest rewards while avoid those that provide the least rewards or greatest penalties. The purpose of setting targets and tying them into incentives is to seek to modify individual behaviour in directions that are perceived to by important or beneficial to those with the authority to determine those targets – in short, ‘carrot and stick’ management.

If, as it is reasonable to suspect, the view of drunk drivers expressed by Another Constable is fairly typical of the police, generally, then even without tacking on external targets and applying incentives, it would seem that the nature of the offence itself and the manner in which this relates to the way that police perceive their role in society, already provides a clear incentive for them to target drink driving. The very idea of arresting drink drivers clearly appears to motivate our blogging constable because it provides him with a pay-off that he personally values – the feeling of a ‘job well done’ not just as police officer but, more viscerally, as a guardian of public safety and well-being – with very little by way of drawbacks. Such arrests are easy to process, by comparison to other offences, and require minimal interaction with prosecuting authorities and the courts because the majority of offenders are caught bang to rights and plead guilty. It’s win-win-win all the way to a bit of welcome job satisfaction on to the regular paycheck.

So what’s the problem here? After all, drink driving is a criminal offence and one that, it would appear, many police officers are already well-motivated to deal with without the need to stick them arrest targets or sweeten the deal with a bit extra in the pay packet.

And the answer, of course, is that what we’re talking about here is a driving offence and we live in a modern post-industrial society in which there are a hell of lot of people who drive cars; people who (a) have the right to vote in elections, and (b) for a variety of reasons show a marked tendency towards sensitivity should they come to feel that they are being singled out by ‘the authories’ and unfairly/unduly in receipt of a little too much attention from the police – the kind of sensitivity that provides an incentive to place their vote against the name of someone other than the incumbent come the next election should they feel that that particular candidate bears some responsibility for their being on the receiving end of the attentions of the police.

Targets (and the incentives linked to them) may be the mechanism by which objective priorities in policing, and indeed across the whole of the public sector, are overridden in the interests of political gain, but the actual source and cause of the problem is politicians, or to be more specific the confluence of their political interests with ‘public opinion’ in which the latter need not, and more often than not isn’t, founded on an objective assessment of the facts but, instead, on perceptions that, when subjected to critical scrutiny, do not measure up to reality.

The common thread in all this is, of course, the idea of ‘zero tolerance’ policing, about which politicians have been routinely drooling since its use in New York first hit the headlines in the mid 1990s:

The American example

We need a wholesale change in policy: from the central to the local, from the procedural to As Rudolph Guiliani, the former mayor of New York, put it: “murder and graffiti are two vastly the proactive, and different crimes… But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other.”

Guiliani and his police chief Bill Bratton demonstrated, however, that rising crime is not inevitable. In eight years in the 1990s, the murder rate in New York fell by three-quarters, from 2,245 homicides in 1990 to 633 in 1998. This was achieved through an increase in police officers on the streets, robust community policing, and proper management accountability with local precinct commanders given greater freedom and responsibility. Total crime fell by two-thirds between 1990 and 2002.

The problem with all this, as Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner pointed out in Freakonomics, is that the only thing on Cameron’s list that stacks up against the evidence as actually impacting on crime rates during that period was the increase in police officers. Police numbers increased in New York by 45% during the 1990s, a figure that included an additional 5,000 officers funded by the Federal government.

Levitt identified four factors, in all, that impacted positively on reducing crime rates during this period; increasing police numbers, a rising prison population – more criminals in prison equals less on the streets committing crimes – the abatement of the chronic problems of crack cocaine and, most controversially, the legalisation of abortion in 1970.

So far as as the mechanics of ‘zero tolerance’ policing are concerned, Levitt is sceptical, noting the lack of hard evidence to support most of the claims made for it, and points out that when one adjusts the figures for New York for this period to take into account the raw impact of increasing police numbers then what appears, at first glance, to have been a spectacularly successful strategy that delivered reductions in crime well over and above national trends turns out to have been no more successful than the use of conventional policing strategies elsewhere:

By my estimates, the unusually large expansion of the police force in New York City would be expected to reduce crime there by 18 percent more than the national average, even without any change in policing strategy. If one adds 18 percent to New York City’s crime homicide experience in Table 2 (changing the decline from 73.6 percent to 55.6 percent), New York City is about average among large cities. Third, given that few other cities in Table 2 instituted New York City–type policing approaches, and certainly none with the enthusiasm of New York City itself,it is difficult to attribute the widespread declines in crime to policing strategy. Even Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., two cities notorious for the problems they have experienced with their police forces (Los Angeles Police Commission, 1996; Thompson, 1997), achieved declines in crime on par with New York City once the growth in the size of New York City’s police force is accounted for.

Levitt, S – Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not (2004)

The six factors that Levitt indicated did not explain the decline in crime rates during the 1990s were, in addition to ‘better’ police strategies (i.e. zero tolerance), the strong economy, general demographic changes in population, tighter gun control laws, ‘concealed carry’ laws and the increasing use of capital punishment.

As a brief aside, a 2001 paper by Levitt (and Jack Porter), ‘How Dangerous are Drinking Drivers‘, nicely validates the opinion of Another Constable on drink driving

Drinking drivers (including those not legally drunk) are at least seven times more likely to cause fatal crashes than sober drivers, although sensitivity tests suggest that this lower bound could non trivially understate the true value. For drivers with BACs (Blood Alcohol Concentrations) greater than 0.10, that ratio is at least 13 to one.

It should also be noted that the system of targets and performance indicators that Cameron claims is ‘too bureaucratic’ in the UK is, to all intents and purposes, the same type of system that was, and is still, used in New York – under the name ‘COMPSTAT’ – which Cameron lauds as an example of ‘proper management accountability with local precinct commanders given greater freedom and responsibility’ and which has subsequently met with much criticism for its having the same kind of effect in distorting policing priorities – i.e. pushing police into tackling targets rather than crime – that are evident in Another Constable’s comments about the UK system.

The one significant difference, of course, is that the UK’s system includes targets set nationally, which Cameron argues is a bad thing; but in terms of the types of crime that these national targets encompass, it hardly seems credible to suggest that, in urban areas in particular, locally determined targets would differ materially from those currently set on a national basis.

To compound matters further, as Robinson (‘Justice Blind? Ideals and Realities of American Criminal Justice’, 2002), explains zero-tolerance policing, or as Cameron refers to it, ‘robust community policing’:

… runs counter to community policing and logical crime prevention efforts. To whatever degree street sweeps are viewed by citizens as brutal, suspect, militaristic, or the biased efforts of ‘outsiders,’ citizens will be discouraged from taking active roles in community building activities and crime prevention initiatives in conjunction with the police. Perhaps this is why the communities that most need neighborhood watch programs are least likely to be populated by residents who take active roles in them.

Which brings us to yet another of the paradoxes of policing, one in which those sections of the public who are most vociferous in demanding more Bobby’s on the beat and are most supporting of zero tolerance policing tend to by those with the least need for either – and vice versa, of course.

One of the most basic facts of crime (and policing) is that one finds the highest crime rates in the poorest areas and lowest rates in the most affluent areas. This is true both nationally and locally – high crime rates correlate most closely with poverty, unemployment and low incomes, drug dependency, etc. and in areas of low-quality private-rented and social housing stock, while low crime rates go together with employment, higher income and high rates of owner-occupancy and property ownership.

So, what the evidence tells us is clear that the police should concentrate their resources in poorer areas where there is the highest rates of crime – this is rational, sensible and, unfortunately, frequently unpopular.

Why?

Because its all too often the case that people living in poorer areas, and particularly those from social classes D&E and from ethnic minority communities, perceive such heavy concentrations of police resources in their local area as a sign that they are unduly and unfairly being targeted by the police. Far from being reassured by high-visibility policing and zero-tolerance type crackdowns they see such things as a sign that they are being socially stigmatised and targeted, in some cases, for reasons that are unrelated to the incidence of crime and criminality in their area; the most obvious example of which being the view in some minority communities that they are being targeted on racial grounds but also, more generally, in the context of the notion that the police are acting, or being used by government, as a tool of social control, a view that has grown over the last ten years and the focus of local action has shifted away from simply enforcing the law towards controlling behaviour by means of ASBOs and ‘zones’ in which things like the public drinking of alcohol in the street or young people collecting in groups of more than two or three, have been made subject to control and police dispersal powers.

Meanwhile, over in DailyMailville, the more affluent members of the middle classes see the absence of a routine visible police presence in their area as a sign of neglect and an indication that they are much more vulnerable to crime in their area than is actually the case – so the complain loudly and bitterly about the lack of police patrols in their area.

Factor in that the middle classes are, proportionately more likely to turn out to vote and, also, the key battleground on which elections have been fought in recent years and, again, you have a recipe for yet more unwarranted political interference in policing, distorting priorities that, again, should be determined on the basis of an objective assessment of factual evidence.

I’ve focussed to this point on the two assessment categories that most clearly and unequivocally relate to the ‘core business’ of policing, leaving a further five categories and 38 indicators which, thankfully, can be worked through pretty quickly – you can see the full list here, btw.

In these there are a small number that clearly fall, like those already dealt with, under the general heading of ‘core business’. For example there are indicators for road safety, based on casualty rates, which few would argue are unnecessary – although these would be helped considerably if drunk driving were being handled rationally.

Many of these indicators are little more than the usual things that errant managerialists obsess about.

There are indicators, for example, for ‘leadership’, ‘performance management and continuous improvement’ and ‘fairness and equality in service delivery’ which could easily be considered to be of somewhat questionable value – ask Chris Dillow, he has a better grasp of this stuff than I do. And there are others that relate to what amounts to fairly routine managerial/administrative functions; HR management, ICT, training and development, levels of sick leave and all the usual equality indicators like ethnic minority recruitment and gender representation, plus a range of ‘customer service’ type indicators, very few of which is likely to have any significant impact on the number of police out on the streets. In fact, but for some of the key strategic and operational functions that a very small number of these indicators cover – things like ‘specialist operation support’ and ‘strategic road policing’, most of these amount to measurements of the performance of civilian support staff rather than police officers, in which the overriding principle need only be that of not having coppers doing routine pen-pushers jobs.

It may well be possible to cut out many of these targets in principle, but in practice doing so will have only a marginal effect, at best, on policing and the number of officers employed usefully in the field at any given time and therefore have no appreciable impact on ‘the presence and visibility of police officers on our streets’, as Cameron suggests.

If anything, the performance indicators that could most usefully be dispensed with are thing like:

Residents fear of crime (burglary)
Residents fear of crime (car crime)
Residents fear of crime (violent crime)
Perceptions of anti-social behaviour
Perceptions of local drug use/drug dealing

And even, perhaps:

Residents perception of police performance

In the first instance these matters over which the police have very little effective control and it, therefore, seems more than a little unfair to hold them accountable for them.

The overall national trend in terms of crime rates, across the board, is downwards, and has been since the mid 1990s, this being verified by both police statistics and by the British crime survey, which is generally considered to the more authoritative source. According to the most recent Home Office report, ‘Crime in England and Wales 2006-7‘:

Recorded crime increased during most of the 1980s, reaching a peak in 1992, and then fell each year until 1998/99 when there was a change in the Home Office Counting rules [after which levels of record crime gave the appearance of increasing]. This was followed by the introduction of the National Crime Recording Standard (NCRS) in April 2002 which led to a rise in recording in 2002/03 and 2003/04 but recorded crime has since fallen (a 10 per cent fall between 2003/04 and 2006/07). Trends in recorded crime in recent years should be interpreted with caution due to changes in recording practice.

While:

BCS crimes rose steadily in the decade from 1981, and continued to rise during the early i990s, peaking in 1995. Between 1995 and 2004/05 total BCS crime fell and has since stabilised, with the recent apparent increase not being statistically significant…

…In 2006/07 BCS crime was estimated to be 42 per cent lower than the peak in 1995, representing more than eight million fewer crime.

However, when it comes to public perceptions of crime, the Home Office reports:

Relatively high proportions of people continue to believe crime has risen across the country as a whole and in their local area. Around two-thirds (65%) of people thought crime in the country as a whole had increased in the previous two years, with a third (33%) of people believing that crime had risen a lot.

People have more positive perceptions of crime in their local area than in the country as a whole. Less than half (41%) of those asked thought that crime in the local area had increased and only one in six (15%) believed that local crime had increased a lot.

And…

The proportions of people believing there to be more crime is lower now than in 1996 for both crime in the local area and crime in the country as a whole, with the relationship between the two being more or less constant.
However, since 2004/05 the trends have diverged slightly, with the proportion perceiving an increase in crime in the local area remaining relatively stable while the proportion believing there to be more crime in the country as a whole has increased.

That last point. about the divergence between perceptions of the local and national picture is, to day the least, interesting, particularly in light of these supplementary observations:

Those who had experienced crime as a victim or witness in the previous 12 months were far more likely to say that crime locally had risen a lot. Most notably, 27 per cent of those who had experienced crime both as a victim and witness said this, compared with 10 per cent of those who had been neither a victim nor witness.

Experience of crime as a victim or witness did not affect perceptions of changes in crime in the country as a whole.

However…

Women were more likely than men to think the crime rate for the whole country had increased a lot in the previous two years (37% and 29% respectively).

Older age groups were generally more likely than younger age groups to think that the crime rate in the country as a whole had risen a lot in the previous two years. For example, 49 per cent of women aged 65 to 74 and 46 per cent of women aged 75 and over thought crime levels had risen a lot compared with 23 per cent of women aged 16 to 24.

Readers of national tabloids were around twice as likely as those who read national broadsheets to think the crime rate in the country as a whole (43% and 21% respectively) and in their local area (18% and 9% respectively) has increased a lot in the previous two years.

Nahhh, you don’t say!

Women, older people and readers of tabloid newspapers are those most likely to believe, wrongly, that crime rates are increasing rather than decreasing – do I hear ‘key voter demographics’ anyone? ‘Worcester woman’ and ‘White Van man’?

Better still, the report goes on to quote some very interesting research:

The factors most strongly independently associated with perceiving that the national crime rate had increased were (Nicholas and Walker, 2004):

– Perceiving that the criminal justice system was not effective in reducing crime.

– Being fairly or very worried about being attacked by a stranger.

– Having no or low educational qualifications.

– Reading a newspaper other than the Guardian and Independent, or not regularly reading any newspaper.

The factors most strongly independently associated with perceiving that the local crime rate had increased were:

– Perceiving a high level of anti-social behaviour in the local area.

– Perceiving that the criminal justice system was not effective in reducing crime.

And there, in a nutshell, you have a neat summary of the Tory’s entire marketing strategy for this mini-manifesto and for their tendentious claims about Britain being a ‘broken society’, not to mention the basis about 95% of policy statements, initiatives and announcements emanating from the Home Office over the last ten years.

Not only is it manifestly unfair to stick the police with the responsibility for public perception of crime, when its something over which they can have little or no positive control. In fact about the only thing they can do, and are sadly doing all the more often of late, is make matters worse by indulging in a bit of politicking of their own, which invariably involves demands for more powers and more illiberal legislation.

In all this, there are valid questions that need to be addressed in terms of how best to deploy police resources in order to tackle crime and how to ensure that there is appropriate transparency and public accountability in policing without that acting to distort priorities that should be determined objectively according to the evidence and not on the basis of misplaced and exaggerated public perceptions of crime that have no sound basis in fact and stem, instead, from the deliberate and conscious manipulation of the public narrative on crime and criminal justice by politicians, like David Cameron, in conjunction with the media.

That requires rather more substantial and radical changes to our approach to policing than anything that Cameron has advanced here, or in the rest of his manifesto for that matter, indeed Cameron’s manifesto is, in total, part of the problem and not part of the solution as he contends.

What’s need is the systematic depoliticisation of  the policing and of the criminal justice system in general, one that in the first instance should begin with the scrapping of all performance indicators that rely on public perceptions of crime rather on the actuality is crime as evidenced by recorded crime statistics and by data from the British Crime Survey.

We need a police service that deals with real crime, not imaginary crime.

So far as public perceptions of crime are concerned, the primary responsibility for that rests with government, politicians and parliament who, in a rational society would be bound by an express public duty to report the facts, and certainly to specifically challenge the kind of routine misreporting that takes place in the press on a daily basis.

Yes, one can point fingers at the media for their part in all this, but that rather misses the point that the media’s capacity to distort the news agenda, and therefore the political agenda, is itself predicated on the complicity of politicians operating out of naked self interest in the knowledge that, sadly, Britian is chock full of people who dumb enough to take the contents of the likes of The Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail at face value and be influenced in their voting intentions accordingly.

Politics being what it is, that isn’t going to happen without a fight, and it comes down to us as citizens to put the pressure on and challenge them at every turn, irrespective of our own political beliefs – there is not much by way of criticism of Cameron in this article that could not quite justifiable be levelled at the current government, and certainly at the actions of the Home Office during the Blair years. And, as a blogger, I’m sure you’ll indulge me if I point out that, currently, this is precisely what bloggers are doing on a routine and regular basis.

So far as the press is concerned we should not seek to censor before the fact but I think we can usefully take a fresh look both at the effectiveness of the current regulatory regime under which it operates and, on the other side of the coin, at whether long standing legal principles, such as that of sub-judice, are configured and applied in a manner consistent with their intended purpose, which is, after all, to limit the scope of the press to exert a prejudicial influence over the workings of the criminal justice system. Sub-judice, of course, applies specifically, and only, to the proceedings of individual cases but one can certainly make a case, I think, for considering carefully whether there are grounds for looking at the question of prejudice in a wider context.

More generally, I think we need look carefully at the ‘enforcement’ powers of the Press Complaints Commission, which are, quite frankly, derisory, superficial and tokenistic to the point of being worthless.

A regulatory regime that allows newspaper editors to bury corrections and admissions of fault in the least noticeable portions of their newspaper after been found to have published material littered with lies, misrepresentations and distortions is one which the scope for redress is in no way proportionate to the original offence. In fact its just plain useless.

What would be much more effective would be a requirement that such correction be given the same prominence in the newspaper as the original article, and if that means giving over the front page of the paper to an apology, set of corrections and an admission of culpability when fault is found with a front page article, then so be it.

In fact, consider what it says about the attitudes and values of the newspaper industry that such a requirement, which has been suggested on numerous occasions, is one that they are keen to avoid at all costs.

These are, however, interim measures only and in the long-term what is needed is a means of providing appropriate levels of transparency and accountability in way that provides the least possible scope for undue political interference in policing, which in turn means an ‘arms-length’ relationship between the police and government in certain matters, particularly in terms of setting operational priorities and allocating resources to them. Let the police do the policing and, within the budgets accorded to them, decide how best to configure their priorities and deploy their officers according to demands they face in policing the area for which they have responsibility – if you’re going to employ someone to run a police service is a particular area then at least have the courtesy to allow them to do their job, that or don’t bother employing them in first place. If politicians are going to keep interfering then they might as replace Chief Constable and Metropolitan Police Commissioners with direct political appointees and have done with at – at least it would be clear who’s pulling the strings.

Okay, so you cannot avoid some degree of political influence. Politicians, after all, are the ones who make the laws that the police enforce and, ultimately, control the purse strings, but beyond that scope does exist for drawing clear demarcation lines between government and the police on strategic and operational matters.

The one halfway reasonable suggestion that Cameron’s got in the manifesto as a whole is that of decoupling policing from accountability to the Home Office in favour of local accountability, even if his reasoning is pretty weak:

A Conservative Government will make each police force accountable to an individual directly elected by the citizens of the police force area. This individual, the Crime Commissioner or, where relevant, the elected Mayor would set the force’s budget and strategy, and hold the Chief Constable to account. Crime Commissioners would seek re-election on their record, and answer to the public for their success or failure in reducing crime.

The best policing is not necessarily ‘neighbourhood policing’ merely policing tailored to local circumstances and local conditions – the kind that aims to tackle real crime and not imaginary crime which exists only in distorted  public perceptions. And in this, the best argument for localism is simply that the evidence clearly suggests that the public has a much more realistic grasp of reality when it comes to conditions in their local area than it does when it comes to the national picture. Local perceptions of crime and crime rates are founded much more on what’s really happening in their area and not on what they read in the Daily Mail, which in turn creates conditions more conducive to, and supportive of,  policing based on an objective assessment of local conditions and not on political considerations.

Having made that leap of understanding. the very last thing you need to do is reintroduce an unnecessary political element in proceeding in the form of an elected mayor of so-called ‘Crime Commissioner’ – the description of which, I might add, is far from being that the locally elected ‘sheriff’ that was widely touted in the press before the manifesto was released – these appear to be ‘commissioners’ in the sense of controlling budgets and deciding what to pay for, i.e. ‘commissioning services’, not is the sense of being a Police Commissioner/Commissioner of Police as found in the Metropolitan Police or in US cities.

The problem with electing people to oversee policing is simply that politics distorts policing priorities – as can be both readily observed in Britain and is well-documented in the US from Cameron has appropriated this idea – which has elected sheriffs, district attorneys, and even judges together with a long catalogue of miscarriages of justice stemming from individuals seeking re-election manipulating the system to try and get a headline-grabbing success story to bolster their bid for re-election.

Local policing requires local accountability, quite obviously, but the best mechanism for ensuring that that occurs is not by making the police accountable to a single elected individual, but by making it directly accountable to citizens, which in practical terms provides a strong argument in favour of using citizen’s juries, membership of which would be determined by lot, as the basis for local accountability.

What could be more straightforward than a system in which the police is required to account for its performance on an annual basis, and the priorities it sets for itself, to a jury of local citizens chosen at random from the very area they police.

Moreover, the citizen’s jury model entails both the presentation of evidence to the jury, who can therefore see, first hand, both the reality of crime in their area, as its reflected in local statistics – and therefore how this may differ from their perception of local conditions and/or any impressions gained from the press and politicians – and provides scope for the jury members to cross-examine those representing the police on its performance and take evidence from expert ‘witnesses’ who may offer alternative/different perspectives on issues of interest to the jury panel.

Putting on my Labour Party ‘hat’ for a moment, its worth recalling the comments of Gordon Brown in July of this year:

I’d like to have what are called citizens’ juries, where we say to people, “look, here is a problem that we are dealing with – today it’s housing, it could be drugs or youth services, it could be anti-social behaviour – here’s a problem, this is what we are thinking about it, but tell us what you think. And lets look at some of the facts, lets look at some of the challenges. Lets look at some of the options that have been tried in different countries around the world, and then lets together come to a decision about how to solve these problems”. This is not sofa government, it’s listening to the people.

Well, Gordon, I think I’ve just outlined a ideal opportunity for you to put your ideas on citizen juries into practice and shaft Cameron at the same time – not that the latter is that much of challenge in policy terms given the degree of intellectual poverty on display in this mini-manifesto.

Despite falling over a couple of lines of argument that are actually worth pursuing, Cameron’s proposals here are no more convincing or substantial than his ideas on ‘stop and search’, primarily because he fails to recognise that as a politician who proposes to actively interfere in operational policing matters and who is publicly talking up the risks of crime and extent of criminal behaviour in society to a degree far in excess of reality, purely for his own political gain, he is actually a major part of the problem and not part of the solution.

  • On the Press Complaints Commission point, much as it needs reform, I’d like to see every newspaper be forced to do what the Guardian and some other papers already do: have a readers’ editor independent of the paper and internal hierarchy who corrects the mistakes every day, and like in the Grauniad, does it opposite the leader column, the supposed “voice” of the paper. Although having mistakes that were made on the front page be corrected on the front page is tempting too…

  • Chris Williams

    Why not just bring back the Watch Committees? We managed perfectly well for 130 years with urban police forces controlled by elected representatives, with powers to direct hire and fire. See this fine article on the topic written by, er, me:
    http://www.historyandpolicy.org/archive/policy-paper-16.html