Poor people need more bobbies on the beat

September 17, 2015

The crime rate peaked in 1995. Since then there has been a slow and steady, welcome decline. But crime has not fallen equally for all communities. For the poorest communities, particularly in London, crime remains a very real part of everyday life. These areas ought to be the focus of policing in the coming years.

This is the message of Low Crime for All: How to reduce crime for London’s communities a report for Policy Exchange’s London focused research unit, the Capital City Foundation, by David Lammy MP.

The statistics are clear. In England and Wales, adults are 53% more likely than average to be a victim of violence, robbery or theft from the person if they live in a household earning under £10,000 a year. Children aged 10-15 living in social housing are 37% more likely to be victims of crime than the children of owner occupiers. In London, the hundred wards with the highest proportion of social housing have a crime rate twice that of the hundred wards with the lowest proportion of social housing.

No individual deserves to be a victim of crime. There is no such thing as a “victimless crime” and all victims matter, rich or poor. But we need to give particular attention to improving the safety of poorer areas because residents are not only more likely to become victims of crime – and, indeed, repeat victims of crime – but they are often least able to protect themselves from crime.

One Home Office study determined that 41% of all property (excluding vehicle) crime was focused on two per cent of the population. 59% of all retail crime is focused on just three per cent of retail businesses. Burglars break into the same houses repeatedly because it is easy for them. They know the layout of the property. Items will have been replaced between burglaries so they know what to steal and may have already lined up a buyer.

We don’t need to passively accept the high rate of crime. It is not inevitable. As David Lammy argues, the police should focus on crime hotspots and try to reduce the number of repeat victims.

How should we do this? Most importantly, Lammy has called for 2,400 extra police to be hired and deployed on foot patrol in London, particularly in high crime areas. This is not without controversy. Critics of this model of more intensive, higher-visibility Policing make two key criticisms. Both are misplaced.

First, the critics claim that police officers should not be walking a beat but should instead focus on “solving crime”. But we don’t have to choose between one and the other – beat police both prevent and solve crime.

Police respond to emergency calls quickly but those cars with flashing blue lights rarely disrupt a crime in progress. The delay in calling the police allows the criminal to escape before the police arrive. The chances of arresting the criminal increase if the police officer actually disturbs a crime in progress, which is far more likely with foot patrols. There is a positive correlation between having more “visible and available” police and solving more crimes.

Beat police don’t just give reassurance to the public – important though that is. They get to know who the troublemakers are in an area. Their conversations with the public build trust and provide essential intelligence that can help prevent and solve crime. With this in mind, the police car can be a barrier between the police and the public – speaking to the police becomes conspicuous and unnatural. It is easier for a member of the public to speak to a police officer walking on foot patrol.

Second, critics claim that additional police are a “nice to have” but spending reductions have to be made, which means fewer police officers. But reductions in police budgets can be made without reducing the number of police officers. Budget reductions should come from a reduction in the police estate, more flexible police support staff arrangements and a drastic reduction in police paperwork.

We need to cut crime – and we can cut crime. Ultimately, though, that means having the police walk a beat and focusing relentlessly on reducing crime.

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