The Home Secretary has found herself at the centre of a political storm this week over the recent rise in serious violent crime (homicides, knife crime and firearms offences). Is one of the reasons for the recent rise that there are fewer ‘bobbies on the beat’? Amber Rudd rejected this, stating that “we do a disservice to the communities and the families who have seen these tragedies, by just pointing to police numbers.”
On one level the Home Secretary is clearly right: no one would claim that the increase in serious violence that started in 2013/14 is just down to fewer police officers. However, the government’s case has been undermined by the fact that while an internal Home Office analysis said that the reduction in police resources was likely to be a ‘contributory factor’ in the spike in violent crime, the government’s published strategy makes no reference to this.
The government’s strategy is a well-researched document, setting out the complex nature of the likely causal drivers and the consequent need for a multifaceted response. It persuasively points to a rise in the proportion of homicides where the victim or offender was known to be a drug dealer or user as evidence that there is a link between increased street violence and changes in the drug market. In particular it notes the rise of ‘county lines’ or drug dealing networks exploiting children to export drugs into areas outside the big cities. It points to emerging research showing how social media can act as an accelerant in gang related disputes.
However, the absence of any mention of resources as part of the causal mix is glaring – particularly given that the same document implies that resource may be an issue. It does this in two ways. First, it states that “the recent downward trend in arrests and charges for some crimes lessens the certainty of punishment”. However the strategy does not go on to explore the reason for the recent fall in the number of arrests. Any consideration of why the police are making fewer arrests must take into account that there are 20,000 fewer police officers today than there were in 2010.
Second, the strategy rightly acknowledges the importance of prevention and early intervention and sets out a whole range of initiatives, some backed by new money, to prevent young people getting involved in gangs and violence in the first place. But if the government recognises the value of these activities, must it not also recognise the possibility that huge cuts to mainstream local services, in particular local authority youth provision, may have contributed to more young people getting involved in drugs, gangs and violent crime?
Returning to police cuts, an excellent Police Foundation summary of the evidence on the relationship between policing activity and crime shows that:
• Just employing more police officers does not reduce crime – obviously the impact depends on what officers actually do;
• The evidence on the deterrent effect of the visible presence of officers on foot is mixed;
• More focused or concentrated patrols can have a suppressive effect depending on what officers do to increase the perceived risk of apprehension and how these patrols are combined with wider tactics;
• There is good evidence that concentrating resource on specific crimes, criminals, victims and places (‘hot spotting’) can lead to reductions in crime;
• There is particularly strong evidence that proactive problem oriented policing can be effective at reducing crime. This means delivering tailored interventions based on local analysis and understanding – and to do that you need police officers embedded in and knowledgeable about local communities.
On the basis of the existing evidence base it is therefore plausible to claim that reduced police resources could be a contributory factor in increased violent crime rates, alongside the many other variables set out in the government’s strategy.
There is a lot in the government’s serious violence strategy to be welcomed, but efforts to really tackle the structural causes of these problems will require an approach that is sustained over time – and that is adequately resourced both in terms of policing and the wider social causes.
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