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25 June 2001

Why Knacker has to wake up

They won't go out except in pairs and they take a day off with the merest sniffle. Robert Chesshyre

By Robert Chesshyre

Two random incidents from the everyday world of the Bill. An elderly woman is brutally burgled. She awakes from an afternoon nap to find one of the gang beside her bed. He and two associates had rung her doorbell, and, getting no reply, had broken in through a scullery window. While he watches the frightened woman, the other burglars ransack the house, stealing what little she has – her rings and her pension.

She is sure she can recognise the man who woke her. “Professional” criminals who carry out that form of burglary – he claimed to be from the council, and to have come to “check the taps” – always use the same MO (modus operandi). They inevitably have convictions, and will certainly be on police computers. The obvious thing would be to show the victim a “rogues’ gallery”.

But, she is told, photo identification would “contaminate” any subsequent ID parade; furthermore, the burglars are likely to have come from a neighbouring city, and therefore their details would not be held by the local force. The ludicrousness of both excuses beggars belief. How can an ID parade be contaminated if there are no suspects? And, surely, police forces are no longer so parochial that they deal only with local villains. Needless to say, no arrests are made.

The second incident is minor. A man returns to find that his parked car has been hit by a van that drove off rapidly. Local people take the van registration number, and give it to police officers who, by chance, arrive a few minutes afterwards. Six weeks later, the car-owner is still waiting for the incident to be entered on the police computer so that his insurance company can pursue the offending driver.

My friend remains, for the moment, well over £1,000 out-of-pocket. He cannot help reflecting how quickly the police would have tracked down the van-owner had a police vehicle been hit.

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These stories hint at why the government proposes a bill to reform the police. In the general election, law’n’order was, as ever, reduced to a shouting match about which political party would fund the most police officers and the slippery matter of whether there have been/will be more robberies or burglaries under Tories or Labour.

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The game suits the police down to the ground. They get more and more cash – budgets doubled during the 18 years of Conservative government – while remaining answerable (in the main) only to themselves for the quality of the service they deliver. When things go awry, they blame their failures on lack of money, and the nervous political parties step up the bidding yet further. There can never be “enough” money for the war against crime, so the police can always play the resource card.

Inspector Straw went to the Home Office tainted by his record of outbidding Michael Howard. He even looked like a stolid Knacker figure of the type one sees on Crimewatch appealing for witnesses. Now, David Blunkett arrives in Straw’s place, bloody but unbowed from years in the trenches with another bunch of “professionals” highly skilled at protecting their own patch – the teachers.

The inspiration for Blunkett’s proposed reforms appears to be the American model – pass responsibility down the line and make local commanders (including quite junior officers) answerable for the service they deliver. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate will become an Ofsted, handing out the brickbats. Locally, people will be able to see beyond the constant police bullshitting and judge for themselves whether crime-fighting on their patch is all it ought to be. (In the US, cops who don’t deliver are fired: here, they retire on fat pensions.)

That is the plan. Huge determination will be required if it is to succeed. Police canteen culture has tap roots that reach halfway to Australia. Barrie Irving, the director of the Police Foundation think-tank, said: “Every time I go back to fieldwork, I say: ‘Now it will be different.’ But I am constantly amazed at the resilience of the culture.”

There has been much talk of “Spanish practices” – officers refusing to patrol the streets without a buddy, for example, reminiscent of the days when every riveter had a mate to carry his tools. But the main scandals are the abuse of sick leave – the casual ease with which officers stay home to nurse “colds” and “bruises” – and early retirement. It has been estimated that only 5 per cent of officers are ever available for patrol. Recently, three-quarters of the officers in some forces were retiring on medical pensions. Many of these “sick” officers were rapidly re-employed in other demanding jobs.

Shift patterns are archaic, reflecting the days of Robert Peel, when officers marched on to the streets military style. Some forces have as many police on duty at three in the morning as at the busiest moments of the day; and commanders cannot pay active front-line officers more than they do indolent PCs dozing over admin jobs that could be done by school leavers.

However, a central problem is that “reform” easily (and speedily) translates into fresh bureaucracy. Inspectors and sergeants see their role as enforcing strict adherence to edicts imposed from above. As long as the paperwork is in order, they have their well-padded blue serge backsides protected. PCs clutter up the canteen, writing up their notebooks and waiting for something exciting to happen, like a punch-up in a pub. They may grumble, but, on a wet day, a cup of tea, a bun and forms to fill in sure beat patrolling the high street.

Top New York cops and politicians highlight the crowd-pleasing aspects of their policies such as “zero tolerance” and more officers on the streets. But, says Irving, the transformation of the city has actually been achieved by the minute measurement of junior officers’ performance and by holding them responsible for the results. If what they are doing is palpably not working, they must explain why and offer alternatives.

Irving argues that, despite highly publicised blunders, the British police are good at training officers for the physical side of their job: unarmed combat, high-speed driving, even shooting. By contrast, they are woeful when it comes to training managers. I spent six months in a police division writing a book, and it always seemed to me that the essential problem was the deeply rooted “them” and “us” frame of mind.

Many a happy hour was spent deriding (often justifiably) the foolish bosses for their ineptitude. Policing is one of the few areas (the Commons may be another) where most people stay throughout their careers on the bottom rung, and never take any responsibility. This creates (again, the Commons comes to mind) an infantile environment. In every walk of life, performance improves dramatically if the rank and file share in decision-taking.

Blunkett must not allow himself to be hoodwinked by the never-ending flow of verbiage that pours from senior officers. No one is better at posting sonorous “mission statements” on the canteen wall or drawing up “key performance indicators” – when I wrote my book, some of these were used to wedge under canteen tables so the tea didn’t slop. Others were pinned to the dartboard.

The new Home Secretary was raised in just the sort of working-class area that suffers most from crime. A reformed police service is a political prize that would rank alongside a rejuvenated NHS. But, before he is through, Blunkett may come to look back with something approaching nostalgia on being jostled by teachers’ unions.