There was an interesting discussion on the Today programme this morning about the visibility (or otherwise) of policing in the UK.
Am I the only one who gets fed up with the Daily Mail-type bleatings about poor policing when this rhetoric wilfully ignores reality? Those who cry out for citizens to take responsibility for their actions must surely also adopt a responsible approach to matters of public import. I’ll explain briefly where I am coming from.
Several years ago I invited the Chief Constable of Leicestershire to address a meeting in the parish where I was the Vicar. It was a bit sexist: it was a monthly men’s group that brought together (that night) around 60 blokes in the pub. The police chief told me later he had assumed he would face hostility and tried to preempt that by explaining his job. He didn’t face hostility, but he did explain his job.
Even then, over a decade ago, he was having to work harder with less. What most people hadn’t realised was that the total number of officers at his disposal had to be divided up into three shifts, also allowing for sickness and holidays. It was not hard to work out then why there could only be two officers at work during a particular night covering a huge area of Leicestershire. It was a bit of an eye-opener.
The second element is that most policing these days is technical, behind the scenes and complex. Anti-terrorism, serious organised crime (in all its forms), internet crime (including sex and finance) and all the other essential long-term detective work is – by definition – unseen by the populace.
So, when people (fired up by the media) complain about the lack of police on the beat or the apparent lack of attention given to ‘small’ crime, they need to ask themselves the following questions:
1. How much in extra tax are they willing to pay in order to recruit, train and retain good police officers?
2. If we wish the police to be more visible and to attend to ‘small’ crime – within current financial limitations – which other areas of hidden police work do we wish them to give up?
3. Do we only trust what we can see or are we adult enough to trust that the police are doing their best with the resources we give them?
4. If we really are serious in wanting police to be on the beat chasing burglars and preventing pickpockets, which element of hidden policing should be sacrificed – and will we then understand when (for example) my identity gets stolen and nothing can be done other than giving me a crime number?
This is all about choices. We rightly demand accountability from the police, but don’t always take responsibility for the constraints we impose upon them. The police don’t always get everything right; they sometimes get a lot wrong. But they can only do what they do with the resources we give them. The call for a serious and comprehensive review of policing is timely: the world has changed and crime has changed with it, but police structures still create expectations that belong to a bygone age.
As with other areas of life (such as wanting Scandinavian-level social care at British-level tax costs), we should either pay more tax or shut up. We simply can’t have what we won’t pay for.