12 April 2018

A simple crime-fighting strategy can make a big difference


It’s not unusual for a Home Secretary to ignore research advice. Not all of the advice is good. Not all of the policy decisions the advice has generated have been sensible or survived first contact with the streets. Anyone remember offences brought to justice targets? These seemingly smart measures were brought in by the Government in 2002 to close the justice gap and reassure the public that criminal behaviour had swift consequences. I’m sure a clutch of Home Office pointy heads had their prints all over this, based on all sorts of number crunching. In fact the measure mostly achieved the criminalisation of young people for trivial offences as they were available and easy to catch, therefore keeping the targets met.

Or how about public confidence in the police? I remember this target well because in 2010 I was the lead Home Office official in South West England responsible for ensuring that all the five forces in my area had measured public confidence rates of 60 per cent by 2012. Some forces with low levels of actual crime had catastrophically poor levels of public confidence. So far, so bad. But it turned out that confidence meant different things to different people. A predominantly retired population in the peaceful villages of Devon and Cornwall had no confidence in the police not because they were being murdered in their beds but because of a perception that the local rozzers had no interest in a blitz of dog fouling. These initiatives, and many more like them which litter the gutters of our fight against crime, probably started life in a research paper.

So even if Amber Rudd had seen the leaked research report tentatively linking police officer cuts to rising knife crime, she might still have discounted it. She would have been wrong – the writing was already on the walls of our prisons.

From March 2011 to June 2016 Her Majesty’s prison service lost nearly 9,500 staff as a direct result of spending cuts. The vast majority of these were experienced frontline prison officers made redundant. During this time the prison population increased, as did almost every metric of violence, self-harm and instability. The way increased violence tracked the decline in staff numbers is quite striking. Prisons are communities in microcosm. The stripping away of visible authority to maintain order, control, safety and stability has made prisons dramatically less safe places to be sent to and to work in. There is no other credible explanation.

Various Justice secretaries have been thrown concrete lifebelts by the MoJ spin machine to try to keep afloat the absurd rhetoric separating the cause of staff cuts from the effect of increased violence. For example, new psychoactive drugs were supposed to be the “game changer” that was at the heart of rising violence. Nothing to do with the ungoverned spaces opening up in prisons devoid of any staff to enforce the rules, then.

It’s no surprise to see this handy shibboleth repeated in Ms Rudd’s Serious Violence strategy. Yes, it will be a game changer if you take half the home team off the pitch. Body-worn cameras were supposed to ride over the horizon to rescue beleaguered staff, ignoring the reality that we are dealing with people in prison already not likely to be put off by their brutality being broadcast in front of a magistrate, in return for a slap on the wrist. There was a welcome touch of unintended humility when the 2,500 new prison recruits were announced, to plug gaping holes in capability caused by redundancies – at a cost of millions to the public purse.

Here at least was some acknowledgement, entirely missing from the Serious Violence strategy, that bodies do matter. Unfortunately even those newly minted recruits – paid for by me and you – are leaving in droves before their probation expires as they come to terms with the true nature of their working environment. I wouldn’t be surprised if this dire rate of abstraction is matched in police forces where fewer staff deal with overwhelming levels of need.

Despite the verbiage served up by administrators, I think it’s possible to say that the current incumbents at the Ministry of Justice get it. Rory Stewart is in a tight spot with resources but has also spoken about the need to return to basics in terms of decent, safe and well-ordered prison regimes. There’s a welcome ring of practicality about this which might help the Home Secretary out of the rhetorical corner she has boxed herself into.

Resources matter hugely, but they are not the whole story. Firm action and leadership is also necessary from the top of the political and uniformed organisations to take back London’s streets. It’s not always the numbers, sometimes it’s the will. Bill Bratton, the former NYPD police chief, reduced serious crime in New York by 39 per cent in the 27 months he was in office in the 1990s. His force focused relentlessly on what was called quality-of-life crime – the low-level graffiti, vandalism, anti-social behaviour and incivility which seem to be permanent hallmarks of some neighbourhoods in London these days.

It came to be known as the Broken Window theory. Its thesis was simple – not paying attention to previously tolerated levels of low-level crime created a permissive environment for more and more serious offending. Authority and reassurance was created because people in communities knew there would be a consistent police response to behaviour that brought their communities down and emboldened serious criminality. Behaviour changed, neighbourhoods cleaned up. Knives and guns melted away.

This is a New York response to a New York problem, not without its critics, but how refreshing to have a strategy backed up by action which can be summed up in a paragraph and that seemed to work dramatically in reducing violent crime. The 112 pages of the Home Offices strategy does mention the role of the neighbourhood police (Bratton created 6,000 of them) but cloaked in depressing language of these (denuded) teams establishing “consent”, as if communities blighted by crime needed to give permission for the police to do their jobs. Who writes this stuff?

In prisons, as in neighbourhoods, if visible and credible authority is absent, everybody loses apart from the criminals. None of the hopeful work to create pathways out of violence and reduce inequality is possible in places where people fear for themselves and their children outside their front doors. That is the practical reality in some areas of urban Britain in 2018. The problem is serious but it is not yet out of control. We must fix the broken windows while we can.

Ian Acheson was the Home Office lead for community safety in South West England. He also served as a Special Constable for Devon and Cornwall constabulary.