A senior policewoman said this week that the force should refocus on ‘core policing’ and prioritise burglary and violent crime.
Hardly a controversial remark, you might think, with violent crime, especially youth stabbings, on the rise and fewer and fewer burglaries successfully investigated.
But she went on to say that to achieve this, the police should not be distracted by ‘desirable and deserving issues’ such as investigating historical allegations against dead people or recording incidents of alleged misogyny. Yet these remarks were attacked as ‘shameful’ by one of her colleagues. So what should the police prioritise?
Sara Thornton, former chief constable of Thames Valley police and now chairwoman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, told its annual conference in London on Wednesday: ‘I want us to solve more burglaries and bear down on violence before we make more records of incidents that are not crimes’. She said this in the context of crime levels being at their highest for thirteen years, up by about 10% over the last year according to official figures in the summer. Sexual offences were up 24% and robberies, including muggings, up 30%. Hate crimes were up 17%. Murders in England and Wales in the twelve months to the end of March were up 12%.
But what most alarms many people is the surge in knife crime, especially among those aged 18 to 25. Knife crime was up 21% in the year to September 2017, and although it has been levelling off in London, it has not elsewhere. Jackie Sebire, the assistant chief constable of Bedfordshire, told the same conference, that it was worse than anything she had seen in twenty-six years as a police officer: it is ‘a constant torrent: every single day there is another stabbing’.
Meanwhile, the proportion of cases resolved by the police has fallen from 15% in 2015 to a mere 9% this year. Three quarters of theft cases are closed without a suspect having been charged or summonsed; the figure for robberies is 57%. Less than 3% of burglaries are solved by the police and there are around 3,000 neighbourhoods where not a single burglary results in a charge.
Few doubt that one of the main reasons for this alarming record is the cut to police budgets since 2010. There has been a reduction of almost a fifth in the money spent on the police and there are now 20,000 fewer officers than there were eight years ago. At the same time, demands on the police have grown as society has changed and new crimes and new forms of evidence have emerged. Online child abuse, for example, is a crime that did not exist thirty years ago. Rape cases now often require the painstaking and time-consuming trawls through social media communication to establish evidence.
And it is this increase in the demands on the police that Ms Thornton was referring to when she said that some ‘desirable and deserving issues’ simply could not be added to the list of police tasks if they were to do their core job properly. In this she was backed by the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, and by the metropolitan chief commissioner, Cressida Dick, who said there ‘had never been a fag paper’ between her views and those of Ms Thornton. She told me on the Today programme on Friday that ‘we can’t go on increasing the scale of the mission’.
Sara Thornton cited the example of police investigation of historical allegations against dead people. Wiltshire Police spent £1.5m and deployed considerable police effort investigating accusations of historical child abuse against (among others) Edward Heath, the former prime minister, long after his death, none of which came to anything. Cressida Dick said the police should not investigate such allegations unless those accused were still alive.
But Ms Thornton stoked controversy when she said that investigating gender-based hate incidents was another example of the wrong priorities. Sue Fish, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire, said these remarks were ‘shameful’. For the past two years her force has been recording incidents of alleged misogyny, even though it is not a crime. She said in response to Ms Thornton’s views: ‘We’re reinforcing that women are not worthy of any sort of service from the police’. She went on to add that historically the police treatment of female victims of rape and domestic violence had been ‘appalling’.
The issue is pertinent because the government has recently asked the Law Commission to investigate ‘how sex and gender characteristics are treated within existing hate crime laws’. Those laws currently involve hostility or prejudice based on race, ethnicity, religion, beliefs, sexual orientation, disability or transgenderism. Extending this list to include misogyny is controversial in itself: some have suggested that if misogyny is on the list so too should be misandry, hatred of men. But it is the extra demand it would place on the police that most concerns many of them.
One unnamed chief constable at the conference is reported to have said: ‘Crimes of hate need to be a clear priority, but extending the remit into incidents where no crime has been committed, such as misogyny and misandry, is fraught at any time. Doing it when we are struggling to get the basics covered is madness’.
The point made by Sara Thornton and Cressida Dick is that the police should be concerned only with what is a crime and that politicians (and indeed the public) should be very careful about adding to the list of crimes when the police are already so over-stretched. But not everyone sees it this way. South Yorkshire police last month asked people to start reporting to them cases of insulting language being used, even where this is not a crime. No doubt it believes such reporting might provide early warning of potential hate crimes to follow, but critics say this just uses up scarce police resources in form-filling. They also see it as a slippery slope: soon, they fear, campaigners will start to demand that insulting behaviour, bad language and wolf-whistling ought to be made crimes too.
Diane Abbott , the shadow home secretary, told the conference that the police ought not to have to ‘pick and choose’ what they investigated. But many of those listening to her would reply that in the real world there is no choice. And she herself accused the government of wanting to gain credit by asking the police to tackle more and more issues without providing them with the resources to do so.
Sara Thornton said: ‘We are asked to provide more and more bespoke services that are all desirable – but the simple fact is there are too many desirable and deserving issues.’
So what should the police prioritise? Many would agree with Sara Thornton that it ought to be burglary and violent crime. With so many more young people walking the streets carrying knives and with so many of them ending up suffering or engaging in knife attacks, the answer might seem so obvious that the question doesn’t need asking. But what do you think?
Let us know.