Earlier this year, a teenage relative of mine was the victim of a street crime. For reasons that will become obvious, I can't identify exactly his relationship to me. The act itself fitted precisely the profile of arbitrary mugging which the government is so concerned to tackle.
Walking in the centre of Bristol, my relative and a friend were approached by an older youth, who demanded that they hand over their mobile phones. The friend did so, but my relative refused and, what's more, chased the thief as he ran off. It is probably fortunate that he lost him in the chase. By chance, later in the day, the two friends spotted the mugger coming towards them in the street and ducked into a shop, where they alerted store detectives who called the police.
When the officers arrived, the boys identified the thief - although he did not recognise his victims, they knew him as a bouncer at an under-16 nightclub in the city - and agreed to make statements. The mugger denied everything and the police said there was not enough evidence to make an arrest.
My young relative was appalled. What more could he have done? He had witnessed a crime, reported it at considerable risk to himself by making the accusation in front of the perpetrator. As a result, he and his friend stopped going into the centre of Bristol in case they came across their attacker; they also kept away from their favourite club, where he worked. In one afternoon, two young people had lost faith in the police.
They are not alone. Poll after poll confirms that the public no longer has confidence in the police to solve crime. The latest was commissioned by the BBC as part of its day of programmes dedicated to the issue, Cracking Crime (18 September) - a commissioning decision that recognises the deep public concern about the issue. Senior police officers bemoan the anecdotal nature of the national discussion of street crime. They believe that too much crime policy is driven by the righteous indignation of the middle classes over their dinner tables. There is little doubt, for instance, that the government's street crime initiative, which began in April this year, was motivated in part by the fact that the Prime Minister's own son has been the recent victim of a mugging.
It is an understandable reaction. I am not ashamed to say that the incident in Bristol has been the subject of conversation at a middle-class dinner party or two. I am furious about what happened to my young relative. Furious that his public-spirited attempts to report a crime were ignored. Furious that the young criminal was left with the feeling that he was untouchable as long as he denied everything. And furious that two teenagers no longer feel safe to hang out in their home city.
The responsibility lies ultimately with the police, and it is their casual attitude that angers me the most. Avon and Somerset, the force responsible for Bristol, covers one of the ten trouble spots targeted in the crackdown on street crime and it was one of the forces that were said to have successfully reduced the level of recorded street crime when initial figures were released on 12 September. I hope they have changed their attitude since April and that the new initiative is working to stop other people becoming victims. But the mugging I have written about - minor, banal, everyday though it may be - was nevertheless a crime, and one which remains unrecorded and unsolved. I would hate to think that Avon and Somerset Constabulary had been helped to reach its targets by simply choosing not to report minor, everyday crime.
Public anger about crime is justified, but there is concern among criminologists that the government's response (police performance targets, the street crime initiative and the rounding-up of teenage "bail bandits") could be disastrous in the long run.
Ronald V Clarke, professor of criminology at Rutgers University, US, and a former Home Office adviser, is an expert on police "crackdowns". His research has shown that heavily resourced crackdowns with saturation beat policing and heavy surveillance can reduce crime, and have a "diffusion of benefit" to other areas such as car theft and vandalism. However, he believes that figures such as those produced by the government's street crime initiative are largely meaningless. "The trouble with 'street crime' is that it is not a very well-defined category. There is plenty of scope for juggling the figures by recording it as something else, or not at all. It is fairly easy to manipulate these figures and very tempting to do so." Like other experts in the field, Clarke believes that crime figures remain unreliable while they depend on the police themselves and fail to take account of the experience of victims.
There is now ample evidence that performance indicators and targets in the public services are all too easily fiddled and can have the effect opposite to that intended. The Home Office itself has already indulged in trickery by publishing the figures for August to show that crime has fallen since the street crime initiative began in April. But experts know that street crime always falls during the holidays and the figures for August have dropped every year since 1999.
The week after the figures were released, the Commons public accounts committee identified discrepancies in the government's hospital waiting-list targets affecting 6,000 people. In education, it is now widely accepted that school league tables have hastened the middle-class flight from local comprehensives and contributed to teacher shortages in the inner city. It is almost certain that police league tables will have a similarly perverse effect. Why would a promising young police officer want to work for a failing police force, any more than a promising teacher would want to work in a failing school?
Using Home Office raw information, it is already clear which forces will come out worst. They tend to be the large metropolitan forces with high levels of social deprivation, high unemployment and high levels of gun- and gang-related crime. A survey carried out for Newsnight tallied with a similar exercise, carried out by the Observer late last year, which put Greater Manchester Police and London's Metropolitan Police at the bottom of the pile.
During the research carried out for the Observer survey, a senior Greater Manchester police officer said it was now common knowledge that there were "no-go areas" in our major cities. This was not because police were too afraid to walk the streets, or that they did not know which criminals to target, but because it was impossible to get witnesses to come forward. He recognised that although local people were afraid of violent gangsters, they had also become distrustful of the police and their ability to protect them if they came forward as witnesses. Officers working on the Damilola Taylor case in south London found a similar no-go culture. In their desperation to find witnesses, they destroyed their case against the teenagers accused of killing the schoolboy.
There seems to be an institutional defeatism about the rhetoric of some senior officers that feeds down through the ranks. Sir David Phillips, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and chief constable of Kent, has gone on the record to say that we are losing the fight against organised crime. Many senior inner-city police officers now believe that the government's obsession with street crime targets will divert resources away from the investigation of serious organised crime.
A paper on gang violence delivered to the Police Superintendents' Association annual conference by Greater Manchester Police earlier this month showed why many in the service have reservations about the target-based approach to crime. The paper concerned the successful prosecution of the notorious Pitt Bull Crew, made up largely of teenagers who rode around on mountain bikes. Despite their apparently innocent means of transport, the Pitt Bull Crew carried out a series of gun-related murders of rival gang members in 1999-2000. In 1999, there were 81 shooting incidents in Greater Manchester, 56 of which occurred in south Manchester. In the second half of 1999 there were six gangland murders, which were dealt with by 64 per cent of Manchester's CID staff. The remaining 53,469 crimes were left for the other 36 per cent. The city carried out a major investigation of gangland violence, Operation Jugular; the force found that it had spent £1.3m to detect 15 crimes.
Chief Superintendent Lilian King concluded: "Spending so much money, time and effort on so few crimes does not do your performance targets any good whatsoever."
The Pitt Bull Crew of south Manchester may seem a long way from the mugging of a teenager in Bristol city centre, but together they illustrate why so many people in this country are obsessed with crime. The remarks of Chief Superintendent King should act as a warning to the government that if it insists on sticking to its target-based attitude to crime, police officers will be under enormous pressure to fix the figures - either by not bothering to investigate future Pitt Bull Crews or not bothering to record the theft of mobile phones from teenage boys. The result will be the same - to undermine further the already shattered trust that the public have in the police.
So what hope for my teenage relative? He and his mother have recently chosen to move to North Devon, which has the lowest crime rate in the country. It is no guarantee, but as with schools and health, the middle classes can sometimes buy themselves a degree of security. The real issue is that people in the no-go areas of south Manchester do not have that option.
Martin Bright is home affairs editor of the Observer