By Bill Dixon
Reconnecting the police and the public is at the centre of the Coalition government’s approach to criminal justice. One way of achieving this is through the election of police and crime commissioners to oversee local policing. Detailed proposals were set out in a government White Paper on Policing in the 21st Century published last year and elections are due to take place in 2012 under the terms of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill currently going through Parliament.
Another, less obvious, attempt to make local policing more accountable was made last week with the launch of the Home Office’s crime-mapping website at www.police.uk. Armed with detailed information about crime and anti-social behaviour in their neighbourhood people will be able to demand that the police take action. Or so the theory goes. Unable to cope with up to 18 million hits an hour, the site crashed and stayed down for most of its first day. Home Office and police officials rushed to its defence. The launch-day disaster was evidence of the public’s thirst for information about crime and disorder. It simply wasn’t possible to deal with this level of traffic whether people were in search of information about crime or tickets for Take That. Teething troubles were unfortunate but inevitable.
What few people asked was whether the maps millions of people were so eager to see were worth the pixels they were made of. Nor was it clear what police forces facing significant cuts in their budgets were supposed to do in response to a sudden surge in demand for their services. After all, as Egon Bittner put it many years ago, the core function of the police is to deal with things that ‘ought not to be happening and about which someone had better do something now!’
As people from Portsmouth to Preston discovered when their quiet residential streets were flagged up as hotspots of crime and disorder, the data on which the maps are based says much more about the way police record incidents than events on the ground. Living near a police station or a busy town centre entertainment district could turn your sedate residential street into a maelstrom of criminality at the click of a button. Angry householders and local councillors took to the airwaves complaining that they were innocent losers in a bizarre game of postcode lottery. Why were they, their streets, their neighbours, their children being misrepresented in this way? And what about the impact of this bad publicity on property prices?
Less well publicised was the fact that crime maps based exclusively on incidents reported to the police, and then recorded by them, don’t tell us very much about what is actually happening on the streets, and even less about how people behave behind closed doors. Findings from the British Crime Survey published by the Home Office tell us that rates of reporting for different types of crime vary widely. While nine out of ten car thefts come to the attention of the police, only around one in every three assaults are reported. What are often, if controversially, called victimless crimes, including drug use and prostitution, are even more problematic. Since neither drug dealers nor users, prostitutes nor punters make a habit of turning themselves in, these offences rarely come to light unless and until the police decide to do something about them. So a sudden upsurge in reported drug offences or soliciting is much more likely to be the fruits of a special police operation than an accurate reflection of any underlying increase in drug use or street prostitution.
Asked what local residents could do about local crime problems identified by the Home Office’s shiny new maps, one spokesperson - fearful perhaps of their impact on already overstretched police services – recommended neighbourhood watch. But here again, the Home Office’s own research suggests that this is likely to be a futile, even counter-productive, response. Apart from the fact that neighbourhood watches have always been easier to establish in relatively low crime areas where they are least needed, the available evidence indicates that setting up a watch has little impact on crime and may actually increase people’s feelings of insecurity and lead to more calls on police time.
In the same week as the Home Office launched its crime maps plans were also being discussed in Parliament to cut ‘police red-tape’ by removing the requirement that people stopped (and either searched or asked to account for themselves) on the street should be issued with a written record. Introduced as an important way of holding forces to account for the use of police powers – particularly against black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups in the wake of the Brixton ‘riots’ of 1981 and the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 - records are now seen as adding unnecessary bureaucratic complications to the fight against crime and disorder.
What does all this mean for police accountability? At its most basic it means that the Coalition government, following faithfully in the footsteps of its Labour predecessor, is playing to a gallery ministers seem to believe is desperate for more information about the dangers they face but indifferent to the means used to reduce them. In the process the government is missing the opportunity to make those same people less anxious by publicising the quite remarkable reduction in criminal victimisation that has taken place over the last 15 years (between 40 and 50 per cent according to the British Crime Survey). It also risks the gradual erosion of public confidence in the police if large numbers of entirely innocent people continue to be stopped in the street for reasons that seem (at least to them, their families and friends) to have more to do with who they are and how look than what they have done. To paraphrase the old American definition of a conservative as a liberal who’s been mugged; the danger is that a radical may increasingly come to be a citizen who’s been stopped and can’t find out why.
An accountable police force is part of the bedrock of a democratic society. Making the police more accountable is a laudable goal for any government. So it’s a great pity that this one seems more interested in technological wizardry and media headlines than either its own research or holding the police to account for the powers they exercise on our behalf.