PC PCs: what is the modern police service for?

Saturday 2 November, 10:0011:30, ConservatoryLaw Matters

In the 25 years since Tony Blair’s demand to be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, solving ‘traditional’ crimes such as burglary or car theft have often seemed less important than sorting out petty disputes or enforcing speech codes. From investigating jokes by comedians such as Jo Brand to cracking down on misgendering Twitter trolls and chanting football fans, police priorities increasingly seem to diverge from public concerns. The police service itself is seemingly confronted by a crisis of purpose and identity.

Some say critics like journalist Peter Hitchens go too far in claiming that the police are reduced to ‘a state crime-reporting agency which does quite a bit of social work, and which fiercely enforces equality and diversity codes’. Yet there are genuine questions about what values the police should hold. For example, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick worries that the police’s ‘macho image’ puts women off joining and hinders diversity ambitions, but others highlight surveys suggesting new officers lack toughness and are ‘worried by confrontation’. Elsewhere, critics question how the police can successfully operate when millennial recruits are reportedly shocked that they are expected to work nights and weekends.

It seems to some that Boris Johnson’s government is keen on a tougher approach to policing than his predecessor Theresa May, who, despite her notoriously hardline approach to immigration, was in favour of less draconian approaches to violent crime. ‘We need to increase the physical presence of police’ Johnson said while launching a nationwide campaign to recruit 20,000 new police, promising expanded police powers like stop-and-search. The speech was panned by many in the media, who thought that the decision to deliver the speech in front of massed ranks of uniformed officers had authoritarian undertones. Top police officers like John Robins, chief constable of the Yorkshire police, even accused Johnson of ‘politicising’ the police.

Whatever Jonson’s intentions, there are questions to be resolved about the police service. While official surveys report overall crime rates are at the lowest level since 1981, there has been a rise in violent crime, particularly related to homicides and knife crimes over the last four years in London and inner-city areas. This, coupled with unsatisfactory detection rates for low-level crimes, is testing public confidence and reputedly fuelling a breakdown in public trust.

Do cuts in police funding and related public services explain such problems and will more money and more police resolve increasing levels of crime and declining public trust? When spats break out over everything from Twitter trolls to whether officers can display tattoos, has the police service become irreparably politicised? Are the police too focused on ‘PC crimes’ instead of real crimes, or are such concerns just right-wing hyperbole to distract from the decline of police funding? What is the modern police service for, and what should be its ethos and role in 21st century Britain?