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27 July 2021

Boris Johnson’s plans to reform policing are short of funding and ambition

A small increase in the number of police and the end of restrictions on stop and search are solutions in search of problems.

By Stephen Bush

The government has announced a raft of measures to improve policing and to combat crime. Superficially, the proposals closely resemble successful measures to improve outcomes across other bits of the state pursued by politicians ranging from Tony Blair to Ed Balls to Michael Gove: victims of crime will be assigned a named police officer in charge of their case, while local police forces will be assessed based on how swiftly they respond to emergency calls.

So far, so Blairite (or “Govian”, depending on your perspective). League tables! Public sector targets! Accountability measures! These are all levers that, broadly speaking, have worked at driving up outcomes elsewhere, particularly in English schooling. But if you examine the detail of these reforms, there are two big shortcomings that were not present in either Blairite or Govian attempts to reform the state.

The first is financial. It’s a good idea to link more money with reforms, particularly in policing, where British politics tends to see any or all problems in criminal justice in general, and policing in particular, as ones that can be solved simply by “more”, whether that is “more money”, more “bobbies on the beat”, or simply just increasing the number of serving police. But the reverse is also true: if you want reform, you really do need to be willing to pay for it. Having a named police officer in charge of your case is a good innovation in a vacuum that ought to give victims of crime the same clear sense of having someone “in charge” of their problem as they do with their GP, their children’s education, or, indeed, any social work case.

But realistically, you cannot do that without significantly increasing the number of serving police officers. We already have a problem in British policing that, as backroom jobs have been cut, more and more police officers are being pulled into administrative roles and duties that simply do not require the person doing them to be a trained police officer, a pattern that is playing itself out over and over across the public realm but that is particularly acute for the police. Relatively small increases in the number of police “on the beat” will not address this problem. The Blairite reform agenda was accompanied by generosity in terms of cash: this reform agenda, such as it is, is accompanied by a very tight spending round for everyone, including the police.

There is a bigger problem with these proposals, however: lack of ambition. This is best illustrated by proposals to make permanent the 2019 unravelling of restrictions on stop-and-search.

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The criminologist Richard Berk once described the challenge of criminal justice policy as a Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker problem. Whatever policy intervention you choose, whatever powers you choose to give or not give to the police or to the courts, you ultimately have to choose whether you are more concerned with correctly identifying “Luke Skywalkers” (that is, people who have either committed no crime, have been rehabilitated in prison, are not in possession of illegal drugs or weapons and so forth) or correctly identifying “Darth Vaders” (that is to say, people who have committed crimes, have not been rehabilitated and should not been paroled, are in possession of illegal drugs or weaponry, and so on).

But whether you choose to prioritise finding Skywalkers or locating Vaders, you cannot avoid that basic choice, nor its basic drawbacks. Build your system to correctly identify Skywalkers and you will let some Vaders go free: prioritise the correct identification of Vaders and you will ensnare some Skywalkers in the criminal justice system.

That’s the essence of the long-running debate over unlimited police powers to stop and search people they deem to be suspicious. Do you place limitations on the police’s power to stop and search people, because we know that this power is sometimes misused? Or do you give the police broad latitude to stop and search anyone they suspect may be carrying a weapon or illegal drugs because, well, there are people out there with illegal drugs and knives so you should prioritise finding them, and never mind if large numbers of people who have committed no crime are getting stopped and searched?

If we imagine for a moment that in a statistically representative sample of 1,000 people, ten of them will be carrying a knife, we are never going to be able to finesse the art of stop and search down to a point where we are only searching those ten people out of every 1,000. But, equally, we shouldn’t be too quick to just shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well, what can I do?” about that fact. Searches have an opportunity cost: if you are searching only ten people out of every 1,000, but you are doing it in an ineffective and disproportionate way, you are not going to find most of the ten people with a knife. You are not prioritising finding Darth Vaders at all: you are just victimising and irritating people who you think happen to “look” like Darth Vaders.

You are never going to get away from the basic binary choice of prioritising Skywalker-finding over Vader-hunting, or vice versa, but you can make the trade-off less sharp by improving the quality of policing.

The Home Office has made two attempts in the past 30 years to improve the quality of police stop and search. The first attempt, under David Blunkett, was a failure. The police reduced the total number of stop and searches, but the police’s use of the power remained disproportionate: ethnic minority Britons, particularly black ethnic minority Britons, were disproportionately represented among the proportion of people who were stopped and searched, well in excess of their likelihood to commit crime. The total number of arrests as a result of stop and searches also fell. The Blunkett reforms failed to protect Luke Skywalker and they were bad at finding Darth Vader, and were swiftly abandoned.

The second attempt, under Theresa May, was more successful: the racial disproportionality of stop and searches fell, but arrests did not fall. The May-era reforms were better at balancing the challenge of finding Vaders and protecting Skywalkers. These reforms were followed up by a tranche of additional reforms to police accountability during May’s first term as prime minister, chief among them greater expectations that the police should keep better records. Unfortunately, these reforms have not always been delivered on and all too often the police inspectorate produces long and detailed reports that essentially conclude that none of England’s police forces are delivering on their mandate, and no action is taken.

This comes back to the “no money without reform” point. You essentially have three responses to the problem of innocent people being stopped and searched. You can shrug your shoulders and say, look, we can’t ever finesse this power and use it better: the only solution is just throw more people at the problem by hiring more and more police officers to do more and more searches. You can say: we can’t ever finesse this power and use it better, so let’s just not bother, we’ll do fewer searches, and just accept that we’ll catch fewer criminals. Or you can say: look, the May reforms prove you can improve the quality and ease the racial disproportionality of stop and search, let’s do that.

Part of the tragedy of Conservative policing policy is that in 2019 the government opted to abandon May’s reforms and to return to the old, failed approach that you can’t make policing better, you can just pay more money to increase the number of police you throw at the problem.

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