New Statesman & Society leader, 5 August 1994

Oh, well, at least it’s novel. Presenting his annual report on Monday, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, laid the blame for at least part of the crime wave on the public’s ambivalent attitude to crime, citing as an example our affection for Arthur Daley. On this view, if we really are to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, as Tony Blair wants, it is obviously imperative that Minder is never shown again on British television.

But there is a serious side to all this. Condon’s remarks about the deleterious effect of a television comedy character were very much in tune with his whole presentation. His message on Monday was simple: the Met takes full responsibility for its successes, but where it fails it is always someone else’s fault. Burglaries are down in London because of the success of the Met’s “Operation Bumblebee”, targeting known burglars and handlers of stolen goods. But racial and sexual assaults are up because of increased reporting by victims, and firearms offences (particularly against police officers) are up because gun control legislation isn’t tough enough. As for the increase in muggings, well, that’s nothing to do with the police either.

Worse, some people just don’t appreciate what sterling work the Met does. Particularly reprehensible are those lawyers who specialise in legal actions against the police. Condon’s report reveals that the Met paid out £1.8 million in damages in the past year for assault, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and other misconduct. In the previous year, the figure was £1.1 million, and in 1991-92 a paltry £571,000. Clearly, there is a conspiracy to do down our wonderful boys in blue. “One of the things that we fear is that more and more people are suing the police, and the Metropolitan Police is being seen as a soft target,” the commissioner complained.

Of course, there is another possible explanation – that the police have indeed been guilty of assault, false imprisonment and so on, and that they have been getting their come-uppance because their victims have refused to take this lying down. Similarly, it could be that the rise in muggings has something to do with the absence of police on the beat in certain areas – and that the rise in racial assaults relates at least in part to the Met’s lack of seriousness in tackling racist violence. It might even be that the lack of cooperation from the public that Condon blames on Arthur Daley is actually down to a decline in public confidence in the police brought on by the relentless flow of stories of police corruption and by bitter experience of the Met’s inadequacies.

Condon’s refusal even to consider the most obvious explanations for the problems that his force undoubtedly faces is a symptom of a worrying bunker mentality all too common among Britain’s police. In some ways, of course, it is quite understandable. During the postwar boom years, the British police en-joyed a reputation for fairness, decency and non-violence unrivalled by any other police force in the world. Until the mid-1970s, there was a cross-party consensus that Britain’s tradition of unarmed, decentralised policing was simply the best.

But then everything started to go wrong – and the scale of the disaster was such that the police are still reeling. First, the Met was revealed to be riddled with corruption. Then, as the economy went into crisis in the 1970s, the police were pushed further and further into adopting a politically charged public-order role – defending strike-breakers against pickets, neo-fascists against the Anti-Nazi League, nuclear bases against protesters. Increasingly, ethnic minority groups complained of police racism and women of police attitudes to domestic violence.

Then came the riots of the early 1980s, then the miners’ strike, then revelations of police frame-ups in the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, then more corruption scandals. And all the time crime rose inexorably, including violent crime – even as the Conservative government increased expenditure on the police. By the mid-1980s, the British bobby’s reputation was in tatters.

Things have improved since then in some ways. Safeguards against abuses of police powers have been strengthened, complaints procedures introduced and refined. Corrupt officers have been sacked (although rarely prosecuted). Serious efforts have been made to eliminate police racism and to get police forces to take domestic violence seriously. There has been a genuine attempt to get police back on the beat in the inner cities. Condon has some right to feel that all his critics don’t appreciate just how much has been done to put the police back on course.

But more is required. To gain the trust and confidence of the public, justice must be seen to be done with officers who fiddle evidence or take bribes. Measures must be taken to connect the police to local communities and to gain the confidence of ethnic minorities. Resources must continue to be shifted from harassing drug-takers, prostitutes and drunks to deterring and catching muggers, burglars and rapists.

And, yes, there need to be changes in the law too – but not just on guns. One of the defining characteristics of this Tory government has been its enthusiasm for criminalising more and more behaviour – picketing, drinking at football matches, squatting, computer hacking – a tendency that has reached its nadir with the Criminal Justice Bill. Most of this anti-libertarian legislation serves only to waste police time.

If an incoming Labour government is serious about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, as soon as it takes office it should embark on a radical programme of decriminalisation to allow the police to concentrate on stopping real villainy.

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