Misery caused by the policing retreat…

It may be a truism that no one likes the cops, but it’s almost certainly true that most people take the benefits that policing brings entirely for granted. In this week’s column for the Newsletter, Alex Kane examines the damage he believes has been done by what he sees as reactive policing. The answer he argues is “the visible and regular presence of the ‘bobby on the beat'”.By Alex Kane

Here is an extract from a report in Thursday’s Times: A bungled burglary may have led to the killing of an elderly couple at their Tudor home in a picturesque market town last weekend. Detective Chief Inspector Dean Barnes, who is leading the murder investigation said: “This is an extremely distasteful crime. It may have been a burglary that has gone wrong.”

“A burglary that has gone wrong.” Does that strike you as a very odd way in which to describe a double murder? The unspoken message is, that the brutes who did the deed, didn’t actually mean to do it. Had they not been disturbed, or maybe even been resisted by, a couple in their seventies, then the burglars would have been happy enough to steal what they could before making their getaway. Indeed, it would have been very much simpler for all concerned had the pensioners gone off for the night, left their front door open and piled up their worldly possessions in cardboard boxes in the hallway.

Of course, had the burglars been killed by the elderly couple—or by any other victims they had encountered during the course of their criminal activities— then the “law” would have moved extremely quickly to arrest and charge their killers with excessive and unlawful use of force.

Here, in Northern Ireland, hardly a week goes past without reports of thugs either breaking into, or tricking their way into, the homes of the elderly and then brutalising them until they hand over cash. None of the victims has been killed, so far, but I suspect that that is more by accident than by design. Let’s face it, someone who is willing to punch a frail ninety year old in the mouth and throat, is hardly likely to be considering the possibility that the punch could prove fatal. On these occasions, it isn’t a case of “a burglary gone wrong,” it’s a case of criminals going to any length to get what they want.

The long term physical and psychological damage done to these poor people is often one stop short of death anyway; with many too frightened to go out or even open their doors again. Worse still, it’s not just the elderly who have to cope with this atmosphere of fear. Right the way across the United Kingdom all opinion poll and anecdotal evidence indicates that millions of us are living a semi-fortress existence. We have abandoned the notion that the police remain a crime prevention and deterrence force, and now regard them as an “arrive-on-the-scene-after-the-event” fact of life. And, let’s not forget it, that’s precisely how the criminal classes view the police, too.

In 1929 the Royal Commission on Police Powers stated: “The primary object of an efficient Police is prevention of crime, the next that of detection and punishment of offenders if crime is committed. To those ends all the efforts of Police must be directed.” Today, almost a century after that report, and almost two centuries after the founding of the original Metropolitan Police, the primary object of the police seems to be to react to crime, rather than prevent it.

There are now actually more policemen per head of the population than ever before in the United Kingdom. They have more training, more backup, more equipment and more technological assistance. But crime has continued to increase, our prisons are overflowing and record numbers of people have either convictions or cautions. Put bluntly, too many people are no longer afraid to commit crime and nor are they afraid of the social consequences of apprehension and conviction.

It may be a cliché, but I really do believe that the visible and regular presence of the “bobby on the beat” is the key. It certainly helped to turn around crime figures in New York and other American cities in the mid-1990s. As Peter Hitchens puts it; “..no figures yet published have measured the sheer misery that has been caused by the retreat of the police from the streets. Police officers in cars cease to be part of society in general and become part of the traffic stream, albeit with a siren which allows them to move faster to the aftermath of the crime rather than the prevention of it.”

If the streets aren’t safe, then nowhere, and no-one, is safe.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday January 28th, 2006.

  • Hi I’m sorry for being completely off topic, but does anyone know if it’s possible to comment on Richard Delevans blog? I can’t figure out how to do it,

    Thanks in advance…

  • BogExile

    An extremely thoughtful piece regarding policing on the mainland.

    What’s missing are two aggravating factors in the Northern Irish context:

    1. Criminal gangs operate with impunity in Republican communities in Northern Ireland protected by a politically motivated rabble who are being used to reinforce the myth that those communities do not want to be policed.

    2. The PSNI wears the assertion that it is the most accountable police service in the world as a badge of pride. The reality is that the ludicrous degree of this ‘accountability’ is precisely the thing which disables pro-active robust crime prevention and dealing with low level anti-social behaviour which grows general lawlessness like shite on parsnips. People want a visible police presence which challenges unlawful behaviour and a criminal justice system which makes an example of them. What they get here is a politicised criminal justice system from the peeler on the ground to the judge in the dock. The consequences of not enforcing the rule of law in Republican and loyalist enclaves even to the extent that it exists across the water is the abandonment of civil society.

  • Mick Fealty

    You can email him, but not comment on the site.

  • Thanks Mick

  • la dee dah

    I like the idea of more cops on the beat. However, in the modern age is it realistic? The cop on the beat was effective before everyone had cars to get about in, when there was a fairly settled population with people staying in an area for a while, before everyone had a mobile phone or even a house phone with which to call every little thing in to the police who have to respond quickly (in cars) and before peoples morals became corrupted and they got greedy so there was less crime. The balance needed because of Human Rights has swung too far in favour of those who break the law, and it costs a lot of them nothing to fight on the grounds of ‘human rights’ because of legal aid.

    The only way I can see cops returning to the beat is if it’s ‘community wardens’ or something like that -who aren’t ‘real’ police and won’t cost as much, or volunteer and cost nothing. This would suit the government as it would allow legal vigilantes recruited locally to patrol their own area and get round anylack of community support.

  • Ultonian Scottis American

    If the cop walking alone on the street is merely a common target for assassination, police procedure will change.

  • Good to see Alex has read “The Abolition of Liberty” by the excellent Peter Hitchens, who, incidentally, was the only London journalist to oppose the Belfast Agreement when it was signed.

  • Alex Kane

    Hi Watchman,

    It was actually Hitchens’ “A Brief History Of Crime.” Excellent stuff.

    Have also enjoyed (thank goodness for Christmas presents) Freakonomics and Plato’s Children. I suspect that you would love both of them.

    Best wishes,


  • Crataegus


    I am inclined to agree.

    The causes of high levels of crime are; public opinion and attitude generally and in specific communities; an over concern for the rights of the offenders; poor moral in the police force; a legal system that finances the defence of the miscreant and seems detached from reality. (Cosy life style for judges living in Cultra who really must lack adequate comprehension of the seriousness of minor offences in ordinary communities.)

    There is a lack of accountability for and public recognition of criminals. If someone is convicted of crime there should be a place in the Post Office etc for their photographs and details of what they did, if minors offend their parents should be included and viewed as responsible. It is about letting people know what sort of people are in their midst.

    You need fairly drastic measures to change the public ethos. To take a simple example of littering why on earth should we pay to clean up someone else’s sod you attitude?

    With regards burglary, this is a very serious crime and in my books they choose to place themselves outside the rights of common citizenship.

    The police should be here to enforce order and standards of acceptable behaviour and need to be supported by the community, but with the background here there needs to be some truth about past deeds by some sections. The Law should be about deterrent and retribution. If you are catching a high percentage of criminals then you can be lenient if not then you need to increase the deterrent. I include white collar crime as well as the more brutish form of criminality as raiding pension funds or a little insider trading can ruin many lives.

    Those at the top need to set standards of accountability, government Ministers need to resign when in serious error. Senior Civil Servants need to be fired when they misspend large sums. It is about setting a standard and building a responsible ethos.

    There also needs to be some serious consideration to the rehabilitation of criminals as many simply re-offend.