Ian Acheson

How Theresa May’s war on the police backfired

How Theresa May's war on the police backfired
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British law enforcement is famous around the world for its brand of neighbourhood policing. But this now exists largely in memory in the place where policing was invented. Our capability to police in this way, that has protected society since the time of Robert Peel, has all but collapsed. The only surprise about the five ex-Metropolitan Police chiefs' blistering attack on the ten years of Conservative policy that achieved this is how long it’s taken them to get their act together.

For a period of time between 2009 and 2011, I had a pretty unique perspective on policing in Britain. By day I was the senior Home Office mandarin in south west England, overseeing performance on crime, drugs and counter terrorism policy. As the sun fell, I put on a cape (okay, badly-designed stab vest) and emerged as special constable 74170 available for village fetes, sheep with no road sense and pensioner whispering.

Occupying these two roles was instructive in seeing at first hand the outworking of Marsham Street wonkery on the mean streets of Bovey Tracey. For example the perverse incentive to criminalise not very bright teenage ne’er do wells (who simply needed a metaphorical kick in the arse) to feed Soviet style targets on offences brought to justice. Or the shire county psychosis about dog fouling and weeds that routinely put the ridiculously safe Devon and Cornwall force area at the bottom of specious police confidence targets.

I’ve hung up my boots now but have retained an affectionate interest in policing policy and practice in our corner of the world and beyond. The UK's ‘community policing by consent’ model is still a shining beacon for how to do the business globally. Yet the reality, as the letter from five former Met chiefs, is rather less rosy.

Lord Condon, Lord Stevens, Lord Blair, Sir Paul Stephenson and Lord Hogan-Howe, who between then ran the Met from 1993 to 2017 don't mince their words. Speaking of a service that has endured a reduction of 20,000 front line officers since 2010 they described in a letter to the Times the consequences of this: the ‘virtual destruction’ of community policing.

This together with other political interference such as stop and search had, they said, emasculated the police and contributed to public perceptions of ‘lawlessness’ on our streets as ‘dangerously low’ resources battle against a knife crime epidemic and a continuing severe terrorist threat. The extraordinary tirade, directed against the policies of the traditional party of law and order, is newsworthy enough in its own right. But this isn’t just politics, it’s personal.

Theresa May, as home secretary and then Prime Minister is inextricably linked with what many senior policing figures regard as a highly-personalised onslaught against the last great unreformed public service. The cover of austerity provided much room for an insurgency of organisational reform that at times has seemed like naked score settling for those with the temerity and experience to see the consequences of cuts and speak out.

Jim Gamble, the visionary leader of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre, CEOP was effectively forced out after going public, criticising his organisation’s planned merger with the National Crime Agency. And after Sir Hugh Orde, the boss of the Association of Chief Police Officers clashed with Theresa May over political interference in the 2011 London riots and critiqued budget cuts, ACPO was disbanded. The appointment of Sir Tom Winsor by Theresa May, as Chief Inspector of Constabulary, a man associated with an earlier pay review detested by many rank and file officers, was also held by many as a deliberate message from the ‘bloody difficult’ home secretary that the days of the cosy policing cartel, immune from government reach were finished.

Whether Theresa May’s war against the police establishment was ever justified is debatable. However, in the context of today’s policing crisis, her words return to haunt her. Incidentally, these words also make life difficult for May's successors, in cabinet or in the London mayor's office.

Defending police budget cuts in her escalating row with Orde back in 2011 Theresa May said these could be achieved, ‘without affecting their ability to do the job the public want them to do'. Versions of the same mantra were repeated by May at regular intervals in public far beyond the time when it should have been obvious they were hollow claptrap.

Nothing has changed? Try telling that to the families of record-breaking numbers of knife homicide victims or rural communities who only ever see police officers on television. Or to people who don’t even bother to report crime as they don’t expect any police response.

The country needs common sense on policing. The perception of things being out of control on the streets is almost as politically corrosive as the more complex and uneven reality. Austerity-driven cuts to front-line policing went too far and too quickly in the face of ever more complex demands on policing.

Community policing, in the form of bobbies on the beat who are known, available, trusted problem solvers, are nowhere to be seen. The proportion of available community police officers in England and Wales has declined still further even as the absolute number of cops has fallen sharply. Chief officers understandably now prioritise ‘immediate’ threats to life and are forced to slash neighbourhood resources that could prevent that harm emerging in the first place. It’s a downward spiral that does not go unnoticed in the criminal fraternity.

So the promises to substantially increase front-line policing, with a few caveats thrown in, from both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are welcome. While Brexit divides and mesmerises a well-insulated political classes, remainers and leavers alike are experiencing a degradation of public services becoming ever more evident and ever more electorally potent.

Whether this promised boost can translate into increasing public safety any time soon is debatable. The usual suspects of political expediency and bureaucratic dither hover in the shadows. The infrastructure required to quickly recruit, train and deploy police numbers to fill the void will be staggering, never mind the salary costs. The years of experience lost in the managed decline of policing will, of course, take years to replace. The rank inefficiency of 48 constabularies, big and small, with replicating infrastructures remains. The highly-variable competence of locally elected Policing and Crime Commissioners as democratic overseers of local policing priorities endures with some stars, some retreads and some invisible and out of their depth.

Volunteer police officers like I was, once the additional luxury of many forces, often now provide the only patrol cover in vast swathes of rural England at weekends. If you’re in trouble, you’ll very likely get the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Special Constables, once an adjunct to community policing, have now become vital to core functions. They are often heroic and dedicated people but they shouldn’t be filling the cracks. Indeed the cracks are probably showing in terms of their retention too in an era of increased demands on their time and risks shared by their regular colleagues. Volunteer officer numbers have almost halved from a high point in 2012, with 29 per cent leaving last year.

There’s plenty of dark humour to be found in the picture of ambitious politicians, who once tried to look tough over police austerity, now busily shying away from responsibility for the dire and wholly foreseeable consequences. The threat described by the ex-Met Chiefs is now so acute there’s virtually no downside in a bit of plain speaking and humility on the criminal stupidity of defunding our justice agencies.

But it’s not so funny on the other side of the tracks in poor communities denuded of trusted authority and marooned in the sort of violence and incivility that is both the cause and consequence of offenders operating with ever more impunity.

There are places in London, as witnessed by Rory Stewart on his leadership walkabouts, where people actually feel unsafe to bring children into the world and start families because of the blight of crime. This in one of the richest economies in the world in the 21st Century is shameful. And beyond the ideological preening and score settling in Westminster, UK policing itself is now a crime scene.