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What can we learn from New York’s policing success?

The former commissioner of the Met, Ian Blair, on lessons - and a warning - from across the Atlantic

The British police have been in the news recently over the phone-hacking scandal, undercover officers and the strategies they employ during protests. But these are the complex areas of policing. The more routine bits - such as dealing with burglary, traffic accidents and neighbourhood disputes - still go on. Here, budget cuts are the biggest issue in town.

In the wake of the Winsor review, published on 8 March, the discussion has focused on pay cuts, but there are wider problems. It is difficult to see how cuts of 20 per cent can be delivered over the next four years. The first problem is that, at one end, the demand for local, neighbourhood policing is almost inexhaustible while, at the other, the threat of international terrorism remains undiminished. The second problem is that over 75 per cent of most police budgets is taken up by personnel costs, but police officers, by law, cannot be made redundant.

There are several things that can be done, including encouraging more private-sector involvement, amalgamating forces and bringing down the number of fully sworn officers. Many can be replaced with cheaper alternatives who perform limited roles - as police community support officers now do (but soon may not, if they are made redundant). Yet there is no sign that these possibilities will find favour with those standing in elections for the new role of police commissioner, as a coalition bill proposes. Nor is there much sign yet that the government is prepared for such major proposals.

Meanwhile, Labour's shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, unhelpfully talks about taking thousands of bobbies "off the beat" without addressing the more complex issue of workforce modernisation.

One idea that is being discussed in coalition circles is "self-policing" - citizens taking over some of the spaces in which the police function. The example that is always given is New York City, which has been transformed since the 1980s. I have visited the city regularly in recent years and am aware of the success of its policing. With the exception of murder - which, due to the availability of guns, occurs three times as often as it does in London - the crime rate is much lower in New York.

While I was at Scotland Yard, I commissioned studies on the differences between the two cities. There is an argument that Scotland Yard has extra responsibilities - protecting the seat of government and having the national counter-terrorism lead - and all without the support of an equivalent to the FBI or the US secret service. London is also twice the size of New York.

But I did not fully understand the difference until I lived there last autumn. The city and its suburbs are far less edgy than London. In the media, crime is far less evident (although the bookshops contain an endless array of books on serial killers, real and imagined). The wailing sirens can still be heard, but they are nearly always those of ambulances or fire engines. The cops are rarely seen, except in tourist areas, shepherding parades, or in armed groups on routine but random deployments around transport hubs or Wall Street.

There are a number of reasons for this difference. One is the low incidence of alcohol-related disorders - Americans have neither the café culture of southern Europe nor the Gin Lane propensities of Anglo-Saxons. But the main reason is that New Yorkers have rediscovered the default position of most Americans, which is to be astonishingly polite. They queue patiently, like the British are supposed to do. Young people stood up for me, an able-bodied 57-year-old, on the subway. There is no obvious road rage. Everyone says, "Please, thank you, have a nice day" - and means it.

Broken windows

There are downsides. Recent arguments over immigration have revealed an ugly, racist streak in the American body politic, which has been exploited by fruitcakes (is that why we call it the Tea Party?) to the right of the Republicans.

Perhaps the enormity of the events of 11 September 2001, the rebranding of New York after the collapse of its economy in the 1980s and the strength of the American dream have all produced a place where professional policing is less necessary. Crime and disorder happen, but they feel against the zeitgeist.

There is a criminological theory called "Broken Windows", which suggests that neighbourhoods can decline into criminality when authorities are not seen to respond to and repair minor acts of damage, such as broken windows. New York City seems to be the apotheosis of that theory - it is a city that has become freer of crime through an act of communal will.

But it is hard to translate this experience to Britain. There were two preconditions for New York's transformation. First, in the 1980s, there was a collective recognition by New Yorkers that they were looking into an abyss. Second, as a result, they were willing to fund an increase in police numbers: up to 44,000 cops, a number far beyond anything London has ever had or imagined. This "surge" created the space in which citizen power could grow. Police numbers have recently declined without affecting safety. It is worth bearing in mind, too, that this process took more than 20 years.

Those conditions and that timescale do not exist in the UK. The changes that the huge and unprecedented cuts will bring to policing are therefore going to be very messy, very unfortunate and very unpopular. Any other ideas?

Lord Blair of Boughton was commissioner of the Metropolitan Police from 2005-2008

This article appears in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?