Bruce Anderson: The problem is not that we have too much local policing, it's that we have too little

If the patrolling policeman was a bird, twitchers would travel for hours in the hope of spotting one
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The Independent Online

The politicians are dissatisfied with the plods and so are some senior plods. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, has seized on a report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary which concludes that most of the 43 police forces in England and Wales are not equipped to deal with either terrorism or organised crime. Mr Clarke is proposing a reorganisation which would compel many local forces to amalgamate.

The Home Secretary is partially right. There does need to be a measure of reorganisation. But this should not involve the disappearance of local forces. The problem in Britain is not too much local policing but too little.

Crime is the greatest threat to the quality of life in this country which is why it arouses so much public indignation. The public is right. In an advanced, prosperous society, why should we have to endure current levels of burglary, street crime or car crime? The public wants a zero tolerance approach and if that strikes readers as unsophisticated, consider this. As a society grows richer, then, if it's members are wise, they will not only devote additional wealth to private consumption. They will purchase public goods beyond the scope of private affluence. Of those, none is more important than law and order.

That requires action at local level. Most of the crimes which upset the public are not committed by Moriarty or the Mafia. They are the toe-rag crimes of desocialised youngsters who have festered in an atmosphere of zero intolerance. It does not require sophisticated policing to counteract them: merely lots of police on patrol, relentless collar feeling and magistrates who hammer home the message that persistence in crime will lead to long periods of imprisonment.

Zero tolerance of toe-rag crime is not possible without boots on the ground. Yet, throughout many English counties, a police station is merely a means of wasting time while hanging on the end of a telephone ratcheting up exasperation and phone bills. As for the patrolling policeman, he is an endangered species. If he were reclassified as a bird, twitchers would travel for hours in the hope of spotting one.

If Charles Clarke merged local forces, all this would only get worse. Resources would be directed to glamorous postings, such as fighting terrorism or attending seminars on hate crime. Bright young coppers would know that this was the way to catch the selectors' eyes. The unglamorous tasks, housebreaking or yobbery, would be even more neglected. More local police stations would close. There would be less leatherwear on the pavements.

There would also be a greater recruiting pool for tomorrow's gangsters. The 14-year-old weasel of crime who, on taking his first steps into lawlessness, encounters not arrest and punishment but merely weakness and anarchy, could reach his twenties as a wolf.

The primary purpose of local policing should be the capture and deterrence of local criminals. There is no reason to avoid maximum democratic involvement in this process. It would help if senior local policeman were continually aware of the priorities - and demands - of the local communities which they ought to be serving.

Localism is the bedrock of good policing and more money should be spent on it. Local police forces will be dealing with the vast majority of crime and criminals so it is important to increase their resources and enhance their status. Above that level, however, there is an argument for a degree of rationalisation. When it comes to the pursuit of serious crime, it would make sense for smaller local forces to pool their efforts to ensure that detective work is of the highest calibre.

Then there is the teritiary level of policing whose targets should be terrorism, organised crime, international crime. It requires policemen of high intellectual calibre who can think their way into the minds of sophisticated criminals and anticipate their use of new techniques.

It is not clear that the police are recruiting enough people of that calibre. In any army officers' mess, you will meet lots of bright youngsters. They are all thoughtful and articulate; all of them reading books; some of them intending to write books. They also know how to lead men and most of them have run up the local equivalent of Ben Nevis before breakfast. At the highest level, the tasks faced by the police are equally demanding. But do they have the right manpower to meet those demands?

Based on his experiences as Home Secretary, Michael Howard is convinced that Britain needs an equivalent of the FBI. A British equivalent might find it easier than the current police force does to recruit good graduates. Given the nature of our society, there is a problem in police recruitment, even though the authorities are usually too squeamish to discuss it. It is easy to summarise: social class. At the higher ranks, the British police force has never enjoyed a cachet comparable with the demanding work it performs.

As soon as he is commissioned, a servicemen becomes an officer and a gentleman. When does a policeman become a gentleman? In recent years, a number of aristocrats - no need to worry about their gentility - have joined the police force, often with considerable success. Yet there are not enough middle-class recruits. This may be because they fear that joining the police would involve losing caste.

Our lady detective writers - Susan Hill, PD James, Dorothy Sayers - have portrayed senior policemen who are painters, poets, or who marry dukes' daughters. One might have thought that this would have been a fillip to police recruitment. But it may be that the fictional glamour only diminishes the reality. Before the war, Lord Trenchard tried to introduce an officer class into the police force. But the police trade unions hated it so the Attlee government ended the scheme.

It could be that a British FBI would be an uncontroversial way of bringing it back. At the highest level, police work should offer public service, intellectual challenge and adventure, which ought to make it attractive to the bright and young. It should also be possible for able local policemen whose education went wrong to progress up the ranks. There is no reason why the police force should not sponsor them to go to university or its equivalent.

Various policing roles would inevitably overlap. In pursuit of Muslim terrorists, the British FBI would need to work closely with local forces. This could lead to demarcation difficulties but that happens in many organisations. Given a combination of leadership and common sense, the problem is not insuperable.

Charles Clarke is right to highlight the urgency of the struggle against terrorism. But he would be wrong to ignore the way in which petty criminals terrorise decent people throughout Britain. It is not only necessary to tackle global terrorism. It is also necessary to confront the terrorism of daily life.