Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Policing: Less is More

All the parties want to "protect front-line policing", see for example this. It seems that everyone wants more policing. But why?

Crime in the UK has been falling for over ten years.  It’s long been known that this is not primarily due to either policing levels or policing tactics. Many explanations have been suggested but there’s now a growing acceptance (articles in Mother Jones and the Guardian) that the real cause of the decline may be the removal of lead from petrol.

Lead is a poison known to damage children’s brains. It’s not much of a stretch to believe that is causes dyslexia and problems with impulse control – the very problems that underlie much crime.

Of course we’ll need a police force for as long as there is crime; and that’s probably as long as there are human beings. Human society demands a balance between individual initiative, even greed, and social responsibility. We don’t always get this right either as individuals or as societies and when individuals get it wrong we need laws, courts, police and, sometimes, prisons.

So we need police but there’s also a downside. The Levenson report and the deaths of Mark Duggan, Smiley Culture and Ian Tomlinson have shown us that should we have doubted it. And it’s not an accident that we recognise the danger of a ‘police state’. 

So, and especially in a recession, it makes sense to ask how little policing we can get away with rather than constantly to demand more. After all, though we’re all reassured by ‘bobbies on the beat’, we know that a bobby would have to patrol for 40 years before happening across a crime!

So let’s see what we can cut.

First, let’s stop chasing drug users. The ‘war on drugs’ cannot be won so we need to reframe the problem as one we might actually solve. We can regulate the supply of harmful drugs – we’ve done it for alcohol and tobacco for centuries – so we can apply that model to cannabis and the legal highs; and possibly to cocaine. We can – sometimes – treat addicts and we can certainly reduce the harm they suffer and cause to others. We’ll need less policing not least because they’ll commit less non-drug crime. Of course we’ll need more treatment and support services but research shows we’ll come out ahead.

Second, let’s stop chasing prostitutes. Prostitution is a victimless crime and legalisation would make it easier to address the real issues – on-street nuisances, exploitation, trafficking and STDs.  Not least, allowing prostitutes to share accommodation would make them safer. Again, regulation is a better approach than prohibition.

Third, we need to rethink our approach to illegal downloads of copyright material. This, like drug prohibition, is a lost cause not least because almost no-one under 35 sees it as wrong. I don’t see the solution clearly but what we are doing isn’t working. Maybe something like public lending right, in which authors are paid when their books are borrowed from public libraries, would work. 

These measures ought enable us to spend less on policing and yet to be safer.

What they need is fair measure of political courage. In the UK, only the Green Party has that courage but I’m hopeful that others will acquire it.

No comments: