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The real role of the police

These days, police officers help put a sticking plaster on society's ills.

Source: Getty Images

Earlier this week a group of gang members were taken to Wood Green Crown court to hear some home truths. Ten boys, all under the age of 17, were brought into the dock. They giggled and shouted abuse at the police. Five minutes into the session they'd fallen silent. They'd been shown stomach-churning photos of stabbing victims. A young mother told them about the death of her son. They heard from 20-year-old former gang member Jermaine Jones-Lawler, who went nose-to-nose with them; shouting, he told them they'd end up in a coffin or a jail cell. All very positive: but is this sort of thing the police's job?

On Radio Four's What Are The Police For? last week policing minister Nick Herbert said the police's job was to "cut crime." The show's presenter Mark Easton was unequivocal in his reaction to Herbert's answer. It really wasn't very BBC at all, and certainly not very Radio 4. He dismissed it as a "soundbite, not a policy." The image that Herbert's words were supposed to portray seems pretty clear: cops catching baddies.

For those who've not seen the excellent Channel Four series Coppers, the words of Thames Valley officer Police Sergeant Graham Smith, also interviewed, should disabuse you of this notion:

Crime fighting is 75 per cent of what we do. The rest of it is putting a sticking plaster on society's ills. We're the only people available after 4pm to do that. Where are the social workers, the teachers and the mental health doctors? They're generally at home. We pick up the pieces and wait for the professionals. It's about preservation of life.

The crossover between crime and mental health runs deep - even in the most clear-cut cases of criminality. Back when I was researching gangs I was told early on by a psychologist to look at how many of the kids would be in a state of 'frozen watchfulness'. Their faces would be expressionless, their eyes constantly shifting around. Within a week I'd seen it. It's what the apprenticeship of domestic violence produces.

We also heard the words of Chief Constable Sara Thornton: "Last year we took about 1,000 mentally ill people to places of safety. I'm not talking about people committing offences. You might say why the police - who else would do it?"

Who else indeed? To get to grips with this issue, we need to go back in time. Right back to the 19th century, in fact. The streets are dirty and nasty. There are muggers and pickpockets lurking in the shadows cast by the gas lanterns and Sir Robert Peel has, in 1829, created a force of 1,000 bobbies to service the rapidly-expanding city of London. These men wear blue, and carry a truncheon, a lamp, and a rattle to attract attention (later a flintlock pistol too). What do they do, these men? Well, they just walk around looking for crime. It probably wasn't that effective. This might be why they walked a long way: twenty miles a night, in fact.

In 1842 it all changes. The first detectives are appointed, and with them comes the birth of reactive investigation methodology. At the start of the Twentieth Century we get fingerprints; at the end we get DNA profiling. Along with all that we get things like investigation aids and systems of interviewing.

But at the end of the 20th century we see that all this still isn't enough. Until 1995, crime is still rising (according to official figures). What's gone wrong? A lot of things. Society has changed - it's more mobile, it's more numerous, it's more anonymous, there are more things to steal, and there are more human rights so the burden of proof starts to make arresting tougher. On top of that, crime isn't local - it's now national and international, and the police has to think in different ways.

Criminals become more sophisticated. They seek to avoid leaving identification or clues. So a new technique comes in: intelligence-led policing. It means we're in a new, third era. In the second era a manager in the police service looked at the day's work and said: a hundred things have been dealt with - can we deal with a hundred things tomorrow? Now the manager looks at the day's work and says: a hundred things have been dealt with - how can we have seventy-five things tomorrow?

To achieve this we have four elements - first the same patrols of Robert Peel's day, targeted through information, second, the provision of a reactive investigation service, third, emergency response, and last - and possibly most important - proactivity; in short, stopping bad stuff happening before it's started. This can take all sorts of forms. Let's say there's a nightclub, and at kicking out time the revelers are swarming out en masse and beating the crap out of each other. The police could sit around outside and nick every last one of them. Or - they could look at other ways of stopping it happening. What if another exit could be opened, so there were fewer drunk people in one place?

It's why success is so hard to quantify through simple arrest figures. Back in 2001 the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset, Steve Pilkington, managed to get the force in Bristol to mediate between the Aggis - local drug dealers - and a gang of Yardies who were hoping to muscle in on their turf. The Guardian's Nick Davies (pre-scourge of the red-tops days) reported on the fact that Home Office officials, concerned by the corresponding drop in the number of arrests, tried to force him out of a job.

Fortunately Pilkington's friends in the Association of Police Officers threatened to kick up such a stink in Fleet Street and Whitehall that the mandarins quietly let the matter slide. This whole episode was even more head-slappingly dim than it appears. Even if crime figures could be read at face value, as Professor Mike Hough has pointed out, the police are not even the major shaper of statistics - that comes down to opportunities and social structure.

The trouble with this work is that it leads to perceived mission creep. Here are a few lines from an email I received from a recently-retired officer:

Law enforcement has crucial information, perhaps the best initial sight into what is going on. It must seize that information, identify the partners, be they other law enforcement partners or outside that club, and work in balance. Gangs is the obvious example. Yes there needs to be some concerted and directed police response but the police are not the cause of the problem and are probably always going to be too late as a solution.

To that end, let us hope that Nick Herbert and Theresa May agree with Chief Constable Thornton: "Preventing crime and cutting crime are playing with words. What's changed is the way we cut and prevent crime. Of course we have a formidable array of powers but it's about working with other organisations - social services, education and health."

If they do, being politicians, they'd never say it publicly. The public are of course considered too thick to understand such a complex message, so we have to put up with breathtakingly vacuous guff like this from Nick Herbert: "The police do other things but the core mission is crime, and they need to show leadership. People respond to leadership. It's not our job to run them but we want to declare the overall mission." I think he said more after that, but I was too busy bashing my head on the desk to listen.

There, really, is the rub. First, if the police are getting to grips with social issues in which other agencies could have a role to play, then where do we draw the line? Second, how do you hold them to account? On the first issue, do you agree with Blair Gibbs of Policy Exchange when he says there's a problem in "areas where the police think they're preventing crime by engaging in areas where other agencies or voluntary sector could have played a part"?

My problem is the emphasis of his statement. For a start, anyone who's spent time with voluntary sector agencies knows they are asked to plug quite enough holes in state provision as it is. There's only so much outreach work the voluntary sector can do. It's not the police choosing to intervene in this stuff - it's the fact there's no one else who will.

But quite apart from that, the police are usually right to intervene, because they're best suited as the first point of contact for most of these issues. They have experience, and something like anti-social behaviour, for example, ultimately has to be a police issue because it can escalate into something more serious in seconds. There's no simple answer: besides more funding. But let's stop kidding ourselves about what that extra funding would really mean.

In Wood Green, the police clearly believe their initiative will work. Let's trust them. Let's encourage and giving the time for them to build bridges with as many other relevant bodies as they can so that there can be a clean handover when they feel it's the appropriate time for a handover. Operation Trident has just taken over responsibility for all street gangs, to moderate hue-and-cry (it was set up to deal with black-on-black gun crime and its officers were involved in the Mark Duggan incident). I suspect the reason it's taken the lead is because it's generally recognised that it's done strong work in the last few years engaging with communities - charities, community leaders of all shapes and sizes, youth workers, etc. It should be given a chance. And on the issue of accountability, I think Chief Constable Thornton has it about right - she said crime statistics should be the primary data, but the confidence of the community and the satisfaction of victims must also be taken into account.

To say these are trying times for the police would be a massive understatement. The force is facing cuts. Part two of the Winsor Report will probably go down badly - it's likely to include fitness tests and shorter contracts. On top of this there's been plenty of criticism over kettling, the response to the riots and much more. They're burdened by bureaucracy, ironically due in large part to a Tory act passed in 1996. On the one hand it helps with fair trials - on the other it takes bobbies off the beat. As other agencies face cuts, they may find themselves even more stretched on the social work side of things.

We tend to have less love for the cops than we do for teachers and nurses - but like them, they're public servants who do such a vital job. It seems odd that many of us don't realize what it is.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year. He tweets @aljwhite.