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Media Information: Embargo 00.01am Sunday 2 January 2005

Britain's policing is amongst the worst in the world

Britain has one of the highest crime rates in the developed world, and one of the most ineffective police forces, according to a new study from Civitas, the independent social policy think-tank.

In Cultures and Crimes: Policing in Four Nations, Norman Dennis and George Erdos compare the policing methods of Britain, France, Germany and the USA. All four countries witnessed steep rises in crime and anti-social behaviour following the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which broke down shared norms of acceptable behaviour. However, in spite of the fact that they have very different policing traditions, the USA, France and Germany have all made a more effective job of combating rising crime than Britain. By the beginning of the 1990s, France, Germany and the United States had begun to confront their modern problems of crime and disorder, while England's influential public intellectuals continued to claim that the 'crime problem' was mainly a figment of the imagination of the old and the ignorant. The result of this 'treason of the intellectuals' was that England, from being a society remarkably free of crime and disorder, especially from the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, by the late 1990s had a worse record than either France, Germany or the United States, even though each of these nations had far less favourable histories than England's of democratic law-abiding consensus.

Crime rates soar

Dennis and Erdos expose the falsity of Home Office claims, repeated like mantras, that in Britain 'crime is low', 'crime is at historically low levels' and 'crime is falling'. These assurances do not impress ordinary citizens who have seen this country change from one of the safest and most peaceable in the world to a seriously crime-afflicted and disintegrating society. This is one of those instances where ordinary people are closer to the truth than the experts.

  • In 1964 in England and Wales there were 72,000 domestic burglaries; in 2003/04 there were 402,000.
  • In 1964 there were 3,000 robberies; in 2003/04 there were 101,000.

There are now five domestic burglaries for every one domestic burglary in 1964, in spite of a great intensification of security measures being taken by private householders to protect their own homes. However, on the streets, where a person's security of person and property depends not on his own efforts, but upon the ability of the police and bystanders to keep good order, the deterioration of the situation has been by many magnitudes still worse. There were no fewer than thirty robberies of personal property in 2003/04 for every one in 1964.

  • In 1955 fewer than 500,000 crimes were recorded by the police in England and Wales. By the end of the 1960s there were over 1.5 million. By the end of the 1970s there were 2.7 million (p.xii).

Over the longer term, the rise in crime is so spectacular as to be difficult to comprehend.

  • In 1893 the annual number of recorded robberies in England and Wales fell below 400. There were then never as many as 400 recorded robberies a year in the whole of England and Wales until 1941. In stark contrast, from February to December 2001 there were never as few as 400 recorded robberies a month in the London Borough of Lambeth alone (p.xxiii).

For New Labour, statistics tend to start in 1997, when they gained power. A longer time perspective is rare, especially regarding crime. The claim that 'the risk of being a victim of crime remains historically low' relates specifically to a comparison of the British Crime Survey of 1981 with the figures for 2003 - as if the nation enjoyed a low crime rate in 1981. However, 'if "history" extends further back than 1981, then it is relevant that the police recorded 2,964,000 crimes in 1981. This was about double the number they had recorded in 1971, 1,646,000. That figure of 1,646,000 was itself about double the figure recorded in 1961, 806,000' (p.58).

Police numbers fall behind rising crime

While crime has been rising, police numbers have not kept pace. In 1921 there were 57,000 police officers dealing with 103,000 crimes - two crimes per officer. In 2002/2003 there were 134,000 police officers dealing with 5,899,000 crimes - 44 per officer (p.79).

However, inadequate police numbers do not account for the failure of the forces of law and order in Britain today, which has made crime a very low risk activity for the criminal. The attitude of the police towards crime and anti-social behaviour has changed radically from the principles which were laid down by the founders of the Metropolitan Police in the early nineteenth century. The Peelite Principles of policing (pp.80-81) put the prevention of crime as the highest priority, before the detection of the crime once it had been committed. This entailed constant, low-level interaction with local communities by officers - the origin of the 'bobby on the beat'.

The importance of broken windows

The reason for the striking success of policing in New York, and other US cities that have adopted the Broken Windows approach to crime and anti-social behaviour (p.173 ff), is that it revives this tradition. The police pay attention to low-level acts of disorder, and deal with them before they create an environment in which the anti-social elements feel in control. Even Jacques Chirac, the Mayor of Paris in 1985, where the tradition of policing is very different, called for 'beat policing… on the model of Britain' to combat rising disorder (p.149) - apparently unaware that beat policing is rapidly disappearing in Britain. The hostility of the law enforcement establishment to the old beat policing model is a significant factor in the police force's inability to get to grips with rising crime:

'When and to the extent that all the elements of the New York model are adopted by the police forces of England and Wales, to that extent the problems of crime and disorder in England and Wales will move towards a solution' (p.202).

Cultural drivers of crime

However, whatever tactics are adopted, a society in which crime is rising as rapidly as it is in Britain at the present time will always be an unpleasant and dangerous place to live. Dennis and Erdos argue that, however much we might try to improve policing, the real problem is the loss of internalised moral principles that prevent people from committing crimes in the first place. The rise in lawlessness reflects a decline in shared values, and Dennis and Erdos attribute this to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which subverted many institutions through which moral capital was generated - in particular, the family based on marriage. Young people who grow up in troubled and dysfunctional households in which moral values are not inculcated, who attend schools where teachers are afraid or unwilling to teach the difference between right or wrong, who live in communities in which the influence of religious faith is negligible, will naturally be drawn towards the self-gratification and situational ethics that predominate in contemporary culture. This is the aspect of the crime problem that has become unmentionable, but Dennis and Erdos argue that the problem itself cannot be understood except within this context:

'Crime and disorder lie in the loss column of the profit-and-loss account of the material and cultural changes experienced by the rich and free societies of the West. Crime and disorder are not accidental and disposable aspects of post-1960s society. They are part of the price that has been paid for its advantages' (p.201).

Policing becomes difficult when shared norms of behaviour are lost, and there is even disagreement about what constitutes good and bad behaviour:

'A society on a large scale or a small scale ceases to exist when its members lose the capacity to agree on what facts are true and what conduct is good'.

'Cultures and Crimes: Policing in Four Nations' by Norman Dennis and George Erdos is published by Civitas, 77 Great Peter St, London SW1P 2EZ tel 020 7799 6677,, price £15.50 including P&P.

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