Leo Mckinstry

In praise of the police

Outside London, at least, there are still officers who have their priorities right – as I discovered when my home was burgled

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Outside London, at least, there are still officers who have their priorities right – as I discovered when my home was burgled

The moment we stepped through the front door we knew that something was wrong. There was a bitter coldness in the hallway, accompanied by a faint sighing of the wind. On walking into the dining room, my wife and I found the cause of the chill. The main back window had been broken and opened, and shattered glass left across the floor. Immediately, we made a quick search of the rest of the house, which only confirmed our fears: we had been burgled. Almost every room showed signs of the break-in. Drawers and cupboards lay open, clothes and other possessions had been flung to the ground. Fortunately not much seemed to have been stolen, except for my laptop and its leather case. Strangely, the thief had ignored several obvious items like a television, DVD player and camera. Nor did he show any interest in my book collection, passing over such treasures as A History of Cork Airport and The Paddy Ashdown Diaries: Volume I.

It was now well past two o’clock in the morning, and both of us were feeling exhausted as well as troubled. We had just been driven from Nottinghamshire, where I had been speaking at a literary festival, to our terraced home on the north Kent coast near Margate. After the four-hour car journey through the night, I could barely be bothered to call the police to report the burglary. This was not just a result of my tiredness, but also because of my belief that the local constabulary would do absolutely nothing beyond giving us a crime number for insurance purposes. After all, I had been burgled a few years earlier when I was living in north London, and the Metropolitan Police had been hopeless then, treating the incident with bored indifference when they finally turned up a couple of days after I had first called them. My sense of disillusion had been further compounded by a deluge of press stories about the police’s reluctance to attend what they increasingly regard as minor crimes. In 2008, for instance, one chief constable admitted that 40 per cent of crime victims are not visited by a police officer.

But my wife persuaded me to make the call rather than putting it off until the next morning. Prepared for more indifference, I was surprised at how much concern the Kent police showed when I rang 999. Within little more than half an hour, two officers turned up and made a lengthy inspection of the crime scene, conducting the task with both sympathy and humour. The diligence continued the next day. Another officer arrived to write a full report and make house-to-house enquiries in our street. Exuding robust good sense, he was like a reassuring throwback to Dixon of Dock Green, a dramatic contrast to the querulous coppers such as Sir Ian Blair who have wandered across our TV screens in recent years.

Soon afterwards we had a visit from a female forensics officer, armed with brisk efficiency and a caseful of equipment. One of her items was a laminated card showing a huge range of prints left by different types of trainers, the footwear preferred by members of the burgling community. Sure enough, our culprit had left on the window-sill a footprint that matched one of the most common types. More good news came when the forensics expert announced that she had been able to take a number of high-quality fingerprints from around the house, for the incompetent thief had not bothered to wear gloves. ‘Probably just a teenage kid wanting some drug money,’ she said.

My entire experience contradicted the increasingly negative image of the police, which is now seen by many as inefficient, self-serving, overly politicised and unreliable. This summer the reputation of the Met has been severely damaged by both the phone-hacking scandal, which showed that officers have been willing to take bribes from corrupt journalists, and the disastrous initial response to the August riots, when years of diversity awareness training appeared to inhibit rigorous action against violent gangs of looters and rioters. Nor has the standing of police officers been helped by the tiresome antics of their trade union, the Police Federation, which has acted as a roadblock against reform through a mix of bullying and emotional blackmail. ‘How do you sleep at night, Home Secretary?’ screeched the Federation’s chairman Paul McKeever at Theresa May during a recent conference. Despite the Federation’s Scargillite intransigence, the status quo is indefensible, especially in the Met. Many senior officers will privately admit, as I have found in several off-the-record interviews, that bureaucracy is excessive, management weak, and financial waste rife. A report last year by Sir Denis O’Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, revealed that, at any given time, just one in every ten officers is available on the streets to fight crime. And this has nothing to do with the ‘cuts’, that catch-all excuse so beloved of the public sector. In fact Sir Denis said that improved management would mean that the police could save at least £1 billion a year without any reductions in frontline operations.

As our experience showed, the police can be effective if they want. It is a question of concentrating on the real battle against crime instead of indulging in politics and empire-building. Only last week, in the north-east London borough of Walthamstow, the Met launched an initiative where officers track down absent fathers and then give them lectures about their parental responsibilities. What an absurdity. The police aren’t meant to be a branch of social services.

At least in my part of Kent, they seem to have their priorities right. Even after all their attention on the Friday morning, they continued to keep us fully informed about the case. The only objectionable moment occurred when I received a call from the Victim Support organisation, telling me of some of the local counselling services available. The only counsel I wanted was news that the brute had been apprehended.

To my astonishment, my wish came true. About a fortnight after the burglary, the police called to say that they had captured him. Apparently he was arrested in the act of breaking into another house in our neighbourhood, and, having been taken down the station, it was found that his fingerprints matched those taken at our house. He made a full confession, though I did not get the laptop back, since he had sold it for just £20. I now wait to hear what sentence he will receive in court. It will probably be some meaninglessly soft punishment, his defence lawyer no doubt having wailed about his impoverished background. But my cynicism could be misplaced. The Kent police have already given me one welcome surprise. Maybe the justice system will come up with another.