6 September 2022

As a chaotic winter looms, a proper Tory policing strategy is long overdue

By Poppy Coburn

If you’ve spent any time browsing Twitter recently, you may have come across the account ‘London and UK Street News’. It’s an aggregator perfectly suited to the social media age, sharing breaking updates on gang warfare, stabbings and robberies well before the newspapers have a chance to report them. Videos such as this footage of some youths stealing from a south London off licence are often posted direct from people’s TikTok accounts. 

You could blame these incidents on some kind of deep-seated breakdown of moral values, or perhaps a lack of spending on programs for the disadvantaged. But the answer is much more straightforward. A decision was made in the early 2010s to reduce the level of children prosecuted for crimes. The CPS Inspectorate says that ‘youths involved in low level criminality, such as minor assaults, damage and disorder, or shop thefts, are likely to be dealt with through out-of-court disposals’. This approach has, in its own narrow terms, been a success: from 2011 to 2021, the number of children in custody fell by 73%.

This is just how government policy works in regards to crime – a problem is identified, but no real solutions are offered. Instead, the answer is to turn a blind eye to ‘minor’ infractions, kick the can down the road and ensure future issues get worse. It’s broken window policing, but in reverse.

And things are likely to get worse. Police chiefs have already begun raising the alarm about the coming months, fearing that the cost-of-living crisis might lead to a breakdown in public order. Of particular concern are ‘acquisitive’ offences – the sort of thing you’ll see shared on ‘London and UK Street News’.

There seems little doubt that the police will be left dealing with the fallout from this winter’s economic maelstrom. But we should be wary of blaming short-term stresses for long-term failures. As this recent Daily Telegraph report illustrates starkly, crimes like shoplifting have already been de facto decriminalised, with firms forced to employ private security staff to catch and prosecute thieves. One particularly egregious case involved a woman who was caught on CCTV stealing £640 worth of perfume. Despite confessing on tape to the crime, the CPS refused to prosecute. Police leaders might point to a 20% reduction in police funding since 2010, but too often forces seem reluctant to use the resources they do have to pursue ‘petty’ crimes like theft.

The failure to adequately police crime has an impact not just on victims, but on the whole community. A perceived increase in criminal behaviour makes people afraid to walk the streets, to use public transport, or to allow their children to play outside. Just as corrosive is the sense that the police will not deal properly with incidents when they do happen.

As for the politics of crime, the division between the Conservatives and Labour is largely aesthetic. Both parties make vague pledges to increase funding while allowing the failing structures at the top to remain in place.

Voters take a dim view of the police’s performance too. A Policy Exchange report, published last week by former police officer David Spencer, quoted polling showing that ‘the public were twice as likely to agree than disagree that ‘the police are more interested in being woke than solving crimes’. Of particular concern is the work of the College of Policing, which introduced the much-maligned practice of recording ‘non-crime hate incidents’ (NCHI). While these recommendations are technically just ‘guidance’, that hasn’t stopped the bizarre spectacle of officers confronting people over ‘offensive’ social media posts. Worse still, a recorded NCHI can appear on advanced DBS checks, potentially scuppering someone’s chance of getting a job in the future. 

Spencer’s 11 policy recommendations for the new Prime Minister are well worth reading – especially his call to disband the College of Policing – but organisational change alone won’t be enough to get the kind of policing the public wants. Whoever replaces Priti Patel as Home Secretary also needs to bear down on the hundreds of small activist groups that have an outsized impact on policy-making, some of whom deliberately misrepresent data to smear supposedly ‘hard-line’ policing tactics.

Take the response to Manchester Police’s anti-gang Xcaliber task force’s banning of around 50 gang-affiliated men from the city’s annual Caribbean Carnival. The Substack SW1Forum identified 14 charities who publicly accused the GMP of racism, including ‘Kids of Colour’ and the Runnymede Trust, which has a long-standing relationship with the force. Their argument that the GMP over-polices black events rather falls rather flat once you consider that the Carnival has a well documented history of violence. If anything the force is far too lenient in dealing with gang-related crime.

This kind of thing shouldn’t be any great shock though. When the right fails to provide a coherent vision of justice, it’s little surprise that the gap is filled with radicals pushing a highly ideological agenda – albeit one for which most ordinary voters have very little sympathy. It’s incumbent on rightwingers, both policy wonks and politicians, to flesh out a properly thought-through agenda to get on top of crime, rather than simply reacting to events. Voters will care little about messaging and rhetoric about ‘being on their side’ if they can see a system that is manifestly failing.

Ultimately, if we want less crime the authorities need to stop viewing perpetrators as if they were victims, and start doling out proper punishment. That is about policing, certainly, but it’s also about the broader justice system. As Ian Acheson argued on CapX last week, unless the prison service has the space and enough staff to deal with more inmates, courts will be incentivised to impose sentences that leave the public flummoxed at their leniency.

As for the police themselves, those in charge need to be crystal clear that their job is not to indulge progressive activists or engage in social engineering, but to catch criminals and protect the public.

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Poppy Coburn is a journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.