From the grotesque crimes of Wayne Couzens and Stephen Port, to the mishandling of sensitive moments such as partygate to the Sarah Everard vigil, to the frankly sickening evidence of what counts as workplace ‘banter’ among some officers, it’s fair to say events of the past few years have done severe damage to the public’s perceptions of the police.
But new research from More in Common suggests that equally damaging to the force is a widespread perception that there is a huge swathe of crimes like vandalism, burglary, anti-social behaviour and graffiti that the police no longer have any interest in tackling.
In fact, when we asked the public, they agreed by a margin of 69% to 10% that the police had given up on tackling low-level crime – a sentiment reinforced in focus groups. Majid from Stoke told us of the police ‘they’ll only come after three or four hours and then say they can’t do anything’. Tracey from Rother Valley agreed ‘I don’t think we’ve got a safe environment; the local police and councils can’t make the place safe’. While Andrea from Blyth told us that she could no longer take her eight-month-old child to the park because of the teenage anti-social behaviour and the fact that the place was covered in broken glass.
This perception that low-level crime is both on the rise, and not being treated seriously enough is felt across Britain – but it is held even more strongly among the group of voters More in Common has identified who best reflect the average ‘red wall’ voter. This group that we have labelled ‘Loyal Nationals’ are significantly more likely to think that that low-level crime is not taken seriously enough. Whereas 52% of the public as a whole say anti-social behaviour is not treated seriously enough, that number rises to 67% of Loyal Nationals – more than two thirds of this group also think that burglary is not treated seriously enough, and 60% say the same about vandalism and graffiti.
That red wall voters feel the lack of focus so acutely speaks to one of the most pernicious consequences of low-level crime – community erosion and decline. In fact, over half of those who say their area has been in decline over the past decade say that crime and anti-social behaviour is responsible. And it’s obvious why, if local parks have been vandalised, shopping on the high street doesn’t feel safe, or if drug use and burglary is widespread, of course you’re going to feel less pride in place; of course you’re going to see many more people moving out and going elsewhere, trapping these communities in vicious cycles of deterioration. Put another way, a failure to tackle low-level crime and anti-social behaviour will doom the Government’s mission to level up the country.
And that erosion of community has other consequences too. More in Common exists to help tackle polarisation – partly by ensuring those in positions and power of influence understand what the public outside of Westminster think. Let me be clear on this: large parts of the public think that when it comes to their struggles with crime and anti-social behaviour those in charge – the police, but also policy makers too, just don’t care. That feeling of disconnect is a perfect recipe for polarisation. What’s more, one of the biggest predictors of support for populist parties of the far right is agreement with the statement ‘the world is becoming a more dangerous place’. The more people feel that the police are failing to keep their local communities safe, the more likely it is that mainstream parties will bleed support to those on the fringes.
Compounding all of this is a perception that the police’s failure to get a grip of low-level crime is not simply a matter of budget constraints, but an active decision to focus on trendy new initiatives in diversity and inclusion, at the expense of tackling crime on the street. Our polling found that the public were almost twice as likely to agree than disagree with the statement that ‘the police are more interested in being woke than solving crimes’. That perception may be unfair, and it’s clearly the case that diversity and inclusion work does not absorb a significant chunk of the policing budget. But nonetheless the fact that perception exists is a failure in itself. Take for instance a tweet this weekend by Lincolnshire Police of their officers at Pride. It’s good that officers feel able to attend Pride events, but was it really necessary to share a video of them performing the Macarena when people are struggling to get hold of the police when their house gets burgled?
The way the police show up matters, and ironically it matters most to those communities the police profess to be helping by focussing on diversity. People who experience hate crime, or who live in more disadvantaged areas, are especially badly served by a perception, however justified, that the police would rather engage in symbolic gestures than be on the beat.
Of course, tackling low-level crime is not just the police’s responsibility. Part of the effort must come from a renewed focus on discipline in schools, alongside more opportunities for young people. Part of it needs to come through more effective punishment and rehabilitation – the public are particularly keen that those who graffiti should themselves be made to clean it up, but they also want to see more support for drug users and the homeless to help them get back on track.
But, above all, we need police forces to recognise that while one house burglary, one vandalised park, one store front smashed, might not be the most major crime in and of itself, it is a major and distressing event for the people that it affects.
It is only when the police show they appreciate that, that they will again convince the public that they’re on their side.
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