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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.