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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty