When the police don't fit the bill

Paul Donovan was mugged in his local park. Would the police response have been any better under Blunkett's 'root and branch' reforms?
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It was early evening and I was on my way across a local park in east London to a nearby supermarket, when a guy stepped out of the gloom. "Give me your money," he said, blocking the darkened path. I pushed him aside. Another two individuals stepped in. In a panic, I ran across the suburban park toward the high street. Adrenalin seemed to take over as the mob closed in.

I heard the shout, "Trip him!", from behind, and I hit the ground. An eight-strong pack closed in, kicking me in the head, ribs, back and legs. As I clung on to my wallet, the attack became more frenzied. I was cut in the back with a Stanley knife. In the end, the muggers grabbed the wallet and ranback across the park. I scrambled tothe supermarket and called the police. As the adrenalin rush wore off, I became more aware of a numbness around my head, bruised ribs and the cuts to the back. Over the following weeks, there was to be some loss of short-term memory and real concern about going out alone.

The response of the police on the night was fast, with a number of cars arriving on the scene and searching the area for my assailants. But all to no avail. I was grateful to the police for their swift response, but what followed later left a lot to be desired.

A woman who feared that the gang was about to attack her as they left the park was not interviewed for three weeks. It was only after I had written to the local Chief Superintendent, complaining about the way the investigation had been conducted that they decided to interview her. I had given details of the woman to the police the day after the attack. Another woman who had seen the gang hanging around before the attack was also only interviewed after my letter to the borough commander.

It was to address such ineptitude that the Home Secretary David Blunkett last week announced root-and-branch reform of the police, including the provision of a variety of new bobbies on the beat. Hopefully, the measures in the White Paper will help to ensure that such crimes do not recur. The biggest deterrent to attacks, burglary and theft is likely to be the introduction of thousands of uniformed community-support officers and the accreditation of traffic wardens and private security guards. This, and the freeing-up of officers from desk duties, will no doubt make assault and petty crime less likely. Proposals for better management structures and greater accountability wouldalso have helped with my situation. The overwhelming impression I had of the police after the assault was one of complete chaos.

Shortly after my experience, the British Crime Survey was published, showing that the crime rate had fallen by 12 per cent last year, with the chance of becoming a victim at its lowest level for 20 years. Violent assault had apparently dropped by 19 per cent, burglary by 17 per cent and car-related theft by 11 per cent. But only half of crime is reported, and just half of that is recorded. This could suggest that crime is not falling, but is simply not being reported, because of a lack of confidence in the police.

More alarming statistics come from a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research, which shows that 12 per cent of adults are so lacking in faith in the UK's criminal-justice system that they would not report a murder. The IPPR's report, Reluctant Witness, says that almost six in 10 of the 1,000 people polled said they would not report screaming from their neighbours, and 70 per cent would not contact police over a street brawl. Police clear-up rates have fallen from 39 per cent to just 24 per cent over the past 12 years.

Former police sergeant Belinda Sinclair believes that the root of the problem is red tape and lack of personnel. "Manpower is the crux of all this," says Sinclair. "The paperwork is horrendous, with three or four hours required following just one arrest. If the police are writing up reports, they are not out on the street." She has little time for the crime figures, which she says are regularly massaged for effect.

Imran Khan, a solicitor, believes that the lack of transparency about the way the police operate means that league tables probably are required. "Look at the number of black people who join the police. League tables will be an indicator that there is something wrong in a force."

Mike Schwartz, a solicitor at Bindmans, agrees. "There is still a chasm between the police and communities," he says. "There need to be more people recruited from the ethnic minorities, more females and more gay officers." Schwartz also believes that for public confidence to be restored, there needs to be an external disciplinary power set up to operate over the police.

But Nick Brown, a barrister, saysfalling levels of reported crime indicate a lack of respect from large swathes of those communities. "In order to improve policing in any objective sense, the police needs to win the trust and confidence of those alienated sections of society," he says. "League tables, revised targets and inspections will not achieve this. All they will do is paper over the cracks."

Mr Brown believes that there needs to be a sea change in policing, coupled with revised economic and social policies that really tackle the causes of crime. "Unless the Government tackles the dire, aimless, hand-to-mouth poverty and abject housing in which so many people are forced to exist, they will never bring down the true level of crime in this country," says Brown.

The last time a government tried to substantially reform police-management structures was in the early 1990s, when Sir Patrick Sheehy produced his report for then-Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke. The police mounted a lobbying campaign against Sheehy's recommendations and blocked any change. And there are already signs of opposition to the latest proposals, with Sir David Phillips, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and Chief Constable of Kent, warning Mr Blunkett that police forces are not like schools, and cannot be judged by performance indicators and league tables alone.

ACPO takes exception to being called a failing public service. "It can be a little galling to be deemed unsuccessful, because we have consistently met the targets set," said Chris Fox, the Chief Constable of Northamptonshire and vice-president of ACPO. "What is clear is that the belief of five years ago that, if crime was reduced markedly, particularly in the areas of vehicle crime and domestic burglary, then public confidence would increase and fear of crime be reduced, was wrong."

ACPO would like to see consolidation of the inspection process. "I think we are now over-inspected at present. I'd welcome inspection by one organisation, instead of seven," said Fox.

Senior police authorities surely realise that the current public mood and political atmosphere are not the same as when they successfully resisted the Sheehy reforms. Blunkett has shown himself to be a strong Home Secretary, determined to deal with the police. And there is also a wind of reform blowing from Northern Ireland, where the Patten report set in place the blueprint for a completely new type of police service. As the reformed Northern Ireland police service takes shape, lessons will perhaps be learned that can be applied to the rest of the UK.

In any case, the need for reform is urgent: the level of public confidence in the police is at an all-time low – and still falling.