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Daniel Korski is a London technology entrepreneur. He was Deputy Head of Policy at No. 10 Downing Street when David Cameron was Prime Minister.
My bike was recently stolen. For the third time. My friend’s laptop was also just nicked. He traced it to where the thieves had taken it. But in both cases the police were unwilling to do anything.
The truth is now clear to most Londoners: minor crime policing is not working in the capital. The data bears out the anecdotal experience. According to the Met Police, in the year prior to March 2022 the sanction detection rate for personal property theft offences in London was 7.5 per cent, meaning that the vast majority of thefts reported to the police are not solved.
Figures from the Greater London Authority confirm this negative trend. Almost half (46 per cent) of those convicted of theft in England and Wales in 2020 had a previous conviction for the same offence.
Unsurprisingly, the public’s faith in the police has decreased in parallel: in January 2023, 51 per cent of Londoners said they do not trust the Metropolitan police. Minor crimes create major issues.
The traditional response is to call for more money and more police officers. But funds for policing have been steadily increasing as have police numbers. The reality is that a structural shift in crime is happening. Disparities in wealth and our ever-increasing accumulation of objects of value have evolved London into a small-crime hotspot bigger than the police force was ever meant to handle. Add to this the ease with which criminals can use social media to target victims.
In some areas, this gap in policing has been filled by private innovation. For less than £200 a month, residents of the likes of Mayfair and Chelsea can subscribe to My Local Bobby for a direct line to a local officer.
Were Sir Robert Peel, widely recognized as the father of modern policing, still alive today, he might consider such policing developments a step back. Peel’s idea of policing in the 1800s was as the first universal public services provided by the modern state.
We clearly need another solution to deal with a structural challenge. Looking elsewhere can be a good place to start.
In New York City in the 1990s, property crime rates declined by about 65 per cent compared to only a 26 per cent reduction nationally. Many attributed this reduction to the aggressive policing of lower-level crimes in what was dubbed the ‘broken-windows’ approach. Visible signs of disorder, such as broken windows or graffiti, were believed to lead to an increase in more serious crime, and so were addressed quickly and proactively to avoid escalation.
In Japan, the police have adopted a method of policing that emphasises preventive measures to stop crime before it occurs. This approach involves using data analysis and technology to identify high-risk areas and individuals, and working with community organisations to take action.
More than 2.5 million bōhan or crime-prevention volunteers – patrol their neighbourhoods. Phone booth-size police stations called Chuzaisho have single officers embedded in their communities with slightly larger boxes called Koban providing space for 3-5 officers; they both allow the police to be close to their community and hear and act on residents’ requests and concerns.
London needs to learn from these cases of success – focusing on smaller crimes, having the capacity to act, working in communities while using data smartly to help prevent crimes and target criminals.
The London-version of this model would be to create a new dedicated Minor Crimes Constabulary, formed of Minor Crimes Officers. Report-taking, tracking goods, confronting low-level criminals and preparing legal cases to hand over to CPS, can all be relocated to the heart of the local community with a dedicated corps able to focus on areas that are under-policed.
Let’s have Minor Crimes Officers permanently on key estates in Chuzaisho-style offices. Let’s transfer warranted officers from desk roles, replacing them with civilians, and fill a Minor Crimes Constabulary with hitherto undeployable officers.
We can also learn from the work of NGOs like Justice and Care, who support the investigation and prosecution of trafficking and war criminals respectively by preparing legal files and handing them to the police and prosecutors. The Minor Crimes Constabulary could include employed and volunteer lawyers who could alleviate the burden on CPS by preparing written and prepared files.
Paired with new and faster sentencing like house arrests, curfews, drug and alcohol testing, and flash incarceration, a shift in behaviour is possible.
There are already schemes at local levels such as Schools Watch, Street Watch and the slightly more successful (and better-known) Neighborhood Watch. The Met has committed to an ambitious recruitment target of 42,000 volunteers across London, representative of the diversity of its population, by 2025.
However, practically, the number of recruits to their formal volunteering schemes have been steadily falling since 2012. Numbers are certainly tiny compared to the post-war period. A new approach is needed. Volunteers need to be incentivised. Ex-army officers should be able to enter the Minor Crime Constabulary directly and in senior roles. Retired officers should be offered the chance to join the constabulary to mentor new officers.
In a new structure and with the title of a new Minor Crimes Officer, a volunteer could receive attractive benefits for their work – a paycheck, subsidised training, or even tax breaks from, for example, their council tax bill. Volunteers would be incentivised to get results, not for a private service but for the greater good.
A Minor Crimes Constabulary could also embrace tech-savvy ways of working from the outset, as it is easier and more efficient than retrofitting low-tech organisations with new kit. Communities are increasingly using apps that enable citizens to live-report minor issues like graffiti or suspicious activity to law enforcement.
A new constabulary which puts technology at the heart of its model of work could lead the way in using predictive analytics, aggregating data from citizens and understanding the geography of minor crimes in a way that the Met doesn’t currently.
Minor crimes are hard to address unless you have a local presence, resources, and incentives to solve things that may seem small in City Hall, but which loom large in people’s minds. The current model clearly isn’t working. It’s not local enough, not responsive enough, and not technologically-savvy enough. A Minor Crimes Constabulary is the way to go.