Readers may be surprised to discover that I used to want to join the police. Not to be a typical beat bobby, which I imagined involved standing around town centres on a Saturday night being abused by hoodies and vomited on by clubbers. I basically just wanted to be Inspector Morse: a gentleman detective, soaring around Oxfordshire in my Jag, solving cases, drinking bitter, and completing crosswords to a backdrop of Wagner.
When my father told me I had to endure the former to get to be a detective (and that coppering involved a lot more form-filling than Colin Dexter let on) I decided a career as a rozzer sounded too much like hard work. There clearly must be a decent number of people in Britain who aren’t as lazy as me, since the Government is crowing that it has hit its target of 20,000 new police officers.
The recruitment of 20,000 additional police officers in England and Wales was one of our headline manifesto commitments in 2019, the sort of thing Boris Johnson would make the Cabinet repeat at a ministerial struggle session. Yesterday, the Home Office published figures showing that 20, 951 extra recruits had joined the fuzz since 2019.
The number of officers now stands at 149, 572. That is, according to Suella Braverman, “more than ever before in the history of policing.” There’s the natural fudging of numbers. The Metropolitan Police missed their target, and there are suggestions that the figures include firings and re-hirings, and that not all new officers are distributed equally. Nonetheless: it is still 3,500 or so more than the previous high.
The was in 2010: the year the Coalition entered office. So lies the flipside of yesterday’s announcement: those 20,000 additional officers came after a significant decline in numbers between 2010 and 2017. This recruitment drive has filled a hole we Tories created. And since the population is four million people larger than in 2010, it means a smaller number of plods per capita.
One doesn’t have to wave around our Party Chairman’s favourite note to remind readers why Theresa May was so keen to cut police numbers. Numbers had rapidly expanded under Gordon Brown as part of his efforts to boost the state’s payroll. As May trimmed the Home Office’s budget by a fifth, the National Crime Survey continued to report a fall in crime. The Office for National Statistics argues those are more accurate than figures recorded by police, which can be skewed by how offences are counted.
The correlation between police numbers and crime levels is not direct. In 1961, when Dixon of Dock Green was voted the nation’s second favourite programme, there were 807 people for every police officer in England and Wales. By 2017, it was 462 people for every officers – and 5.2 million crimes were recorded.
Be that as it may, the virtuous circle of ever-falling crime has become increasingly difficult to square with the reality of the police solving the lowest proportion of crimes on record. Just 5.6 per cent of offences reported to police led to a suspect being charged or summonsed in 2021-22, down from 16 per cent in 2014-2015. The number of sex offences in a single year rose to the highest on record.
We are all aware of what Sam Ashworth-Hayes has branded the decriminalization of crime. Only 1.4 per cent of bike thefts end in a suspect being charged – and if you find your bike for sale on Ebay, the police will shrug their shoulders. When I read that the Met solved only 271 out of the 55,000 thefts from vehicles in 2021, and that 45,000 burglaries went unattended last year, I wonder why I didn’t become a thief.
Naturally, voters are “fed up with anti-social behaviour and low-level disorder” and a “sense that streets and shared spaces don’t always belong to the decent majority”, as James Frayne put it for us. That calling for more coppers allowed Boris Johnson to flaunt his anti-austerity credentials, or now distracts from the failure to police our borders, is by the by.
It is always nice for the Government to keep its promises. More police officers are welcome. But they are nowhere near enough to address the growing anxiety that Britain is descending into lawlessness. We also have to work out what we want the police to actually do – and fund the rest of the criminal justice system just as well as we back the boys and girls in blue.
As Lisa Townsend regularly writes, too many officers themselves dealing with issues that are related to mental illnesses. Rather than catching crims, they are waiting with A&E with those detained under the Mental Health Act waiting for an NHS psychiatric bed – a quarter of which have gone since 2010. That’s before we get onto the usual complaints about Pride parades, Golliwog-collecting, or Sunak protection.
We know how crime can be reduced. Neil O’Brien pointed out for us during last year’s leadership election that just a tenth of offenders commit over half of all crimes. 80 per cent of crime is committed by repeat offenders. And yet the number of offenders with more than 50 previous convictions who were convicted but spared prison rose from 1, 299 in 2007 and 3, 196 in 2018.
Why are we handing these uber-prolific criminals community sentences, rather than shoving them behind bars? Why are not even one in three of those convicted of knife crimes being given custodial sentences? Why are we recruiting 20,000 more police officers to try and arrest more criminals if we are only going to let them out to offend again?
The simple answer is that we do not have the capacity to hold or prosecute them. Our prisons are overcrowded; the average delay between a crime being committed and a verdict is well over a year. Spending money on prisons and courts isn’t as sexy as doing so on more police officers. We are not so much the party of law and order as the party of stupid laws and state-enabled disorder.
We know prison works, in Michael Howard’s immortal words. Police numbers didn’t rise during his time as Home Secretary. Yet his push to see the prison population rise saw the number of recorded crimes fall by 16.8 per cent. Yes, it was during a fall in crime across the Western world. But one must be very well-educated to be stupid enough to think sending more criminals to prison doesn’t cut crime.
The next Tory manifesto should be very clear. More police officers are all well and good. But unless we also commit to properly funding our creaking criminal justice system, the recruitment drive of the last four years will have been utterly pointless. As another police force once said: “How can you say that you’re not responsible?/Confronted by this latest atrocity”.