11 October 2022

Goodhart’s law and order: the problem with policing by central diktat


Some years ago, before David Cameron’s gang abolished regional government, I had a unique perspective on the tension between government rhetoric on crime reduction targets and pavement level reality. By day, I was Director of Community Safety for the Home Office for South West England. By night I was special constable 74170 Acheson, patrolling the mean streets of, er, Teignmouth and various other parts of south Devon that might be in need of a sheep whisperer.

I was able to see, literally at first hand, when the clunking hand of central government targets hit localities loaded with hugely diverse demographics, socio-economic markers and priorities. Reader, it wasn’t pretty. With her recent letter to chief constables calling for a change to ‘culture and standards’, the new Home Secretary seems determined to repeat the process of crime-fighting by central fiat. While I have an instinctive sympathy with the rationale – a determination to move police away from an obsession with hurty words and lanyards into solving the crimes that matter to people – she should be very careful what she wishes for.

I recall the perverse outcomes of two targets I policed in particular. The first was ‘public confidence in the police.’ In the Blairite world I worked in by day for the Home office, I and my colleagues in the provinces were the rough equivalent of todays PCCs, only with regional patches that held more than one constabulary and public service agreements that set out what targets police chiefs had to meet to guarantee their resources and, to a lesser extent, their careers.

The theory was good – ask people if they had confidence in the police, analyse the results and then fix any deficit. The patch I policed as a volunteer – Devon and Cornwall – had the misfortune of returning one of the lowest rates of reported public confidence in the Peelers in England and Wales. Ministers were horrified. My collar was felt. Something must be done!

However, lest you think these rates must derive from homicidal Morris dancers or extreme doctrinal differences on cream teas , in fact this collapse of confidence was largely down to one thing. Dog mess. Yes, people in one of England’s safest regions had no faith in the cops because of dog owners with their incontinent four-legged friends. The mess was everywhere, the cops weren’t anywhere and people who clearly hadn’t enough to worry about made this connection. The data-gathering had no nuance, so essentially the data was junk. 

The second unintended consequence involved something called ‘offences brought to justice’. This one had rather more sobering implications. Brought in to meet the new Labour government’s ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ mantra, this target had the laudable aim of identifying and dealing with more perpetrators in relation to rising crime reporting. The public needed to see culprits having hands laid on them to know the system was working again after years of outcry over offenders given repeat cautions with no consequence. This was one way to demonstrate that era had ended. 

However, the practical consequence I observed – even after the problem had been identified – was the criminalisation of young people. Let me explain: The target was to catch more criminals and this diktat trickled down to sergeants. Young people tend to be the most incompetent would-be wrong ‘uns, easily available, easy to track down. The lowest hanging fruit of the offender tree. So when south Devon’s finest volunteers – the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker – fanned out on duty with reminders of this target ringing in our ears, is it any wonder we ignored Burglar Bill in favour of young Wayne the Halfwit? The tragedy was that these were just the sort of kids who could have benefited from preventative policing rooted in communities, but who instead became collateral damage in the pursuit of a quick but illusory political win. It’s hard to conjure a finer example of Goodhart’s Law, that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Mine are, of course, anecdotal examples – but my regional colleagues reported much the same experience. Unfortunately, our protests fell on deaf ears back at the Home Office. It turned out the clever policy people weren’t much interested in the practical effects of national targets, as long as the political capital was being mined. As you teach to test, so you police to targets. And that was that.

Now, I’m certainly not saying Suella Braverman shouldn’t be exercised by the murder rate, and I’m sure the bereaved parents of the 30 teenagers murdered in London last year would agree. With a mayor as complacent as Sadiq Khan, someone has to get a grip.

But we need to get beyond the false muscularity of national percentage reduction targets, league tables and all the other paraphernalia beloved of Zone 1 wonks and spinners. For a start, we now have locally elected Police and Crime Commissioners – a post brought in over a decade ago precisely to fill the democratic deficit in policing.

PCCs can be held to account at the ballot box for failing to respond to community priorities. That might be lowering the murder rate, but it’s far more likely to be anti-social behaviour, burglary and sexual crimes against women and girls. The stuff that, if untreated, creates zones of incivility and criminal impunity that wreck lives. The concept of electoral recall for failing PCCs exists in statute but is weak and has never been used. Instead of a generic target culture, we need targeted cultural scrutiny and improvement, or career-ending consequences for Commissioners who can’t or won’t respond to local crime priorities.

We still have far too many forces mired in confusion and over-reaction when it comes to the difference between unkind words and ‘hate crime’. Devon and Cornwall is just the latest constabulary to expose itself to ridicule over this on social media. The Home Secretary is right to intervene to stop fashionable orthodoxies getting in the way of the policing basics that voters crave.

Crimes like murder – often years in the making, with perpetrators hiding in plain sight – may not respond well to central targets. However, a Home Secretary committed to repairing the wreckage of preventative neighbourhood policing, making it the fulcrum of the service and holding PCCs accountable for its success, could go a long way to stopping such horrors happening in the first place.

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Ian Acheson is a senior adviser at the Counter-Extremism Project.

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