The real role of the police

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

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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.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.