Max Chambers is a Research Fellow in Policy Exchange's Crime and Justice Unit.
Taking Back the Streets, a series of reports published today by Her Majesty’s Police Inspectorate, should serve as a major wake-up call for police chiefs and those who are charged with holding them to account. The reports demonstrate that anti-social behaviour is often not seen as real police work and does not have the same status as 'crime' for the police. They show that although the public expects the police to take tough action to deal with anti-social behaviour, police forces across the country have consistently failed to take the issue seriously enough. Incredibly, as recently as January this year, a majority of forces did not even cite tackling anti-social behaviour as a priority issue. The police now regularly ‘grade-out’ so-called low priority calls, which means they do not get a police response – and many forces do not have systems which allow them to identify repeat victims such as Fiona Pilkington. How on earth did we get here, given record spending on the police and record numbers of police officers?
As Policy Exchange argued in a report earlier this year, one of the reasons is the fact that the police have been performance-managed to death in the last decade. This has meant that the less quantifiable aspects of their job (patrolling, preventing, mediating, problem-solving – i.e. real policing) have become less attractive, and ASB has not been prioritised as a result. That’s partly why we’ve ended up with a completely ineffective response to anti-social behaviour (or criminality, as it used to be called) that largely involves council-issued warning letters and unenforceable ‘contracts’ designed to regulate behaviour.
However, it’s not just that central direction from the Home Office has disincentivised action to tackle anti-social behaviour. We have record numbers of police officers, yet because many officers are stuck in the police station, just 11 per cent of them are visible and available to deal with the crime on our streets. We have police authorities which claim to communicate community priorities to police forces, but the police appear to be routinely ignoring what people want. And we’ve had constant drives to improve public confidence in the police, yet the majority of victims of anti-social behaviour have little or no confidence in the police’s ability to deal with their problems.
Although there is no magic bullet, we have consistently argued that strengthening police accountability – through directly-elected police and crime commissioners – would drive a radical change in policing culture. Replacing weak and invisible police authorities with a single individual with a strong mandate would make police forces and chiefs much more responsive to local concerns – especially anti-social behaviour. We all know that budget cuts are coming, but today’s reports also re-emphasise the need for public debate to move beyond the issue of how many police officers we have. The real question is what the police are actually doing. The public wants to see police officers out of their offices, out of their patrol cars and providing the kind of proactive, beat-based policing that would make a real difference to everyone’s quality of life.