Dominic Lawson: The police would rather advise us than protect us

Had Mr Singh dialled 999, does anyone believe the muggers would've been caught?
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The Independent Online

As everyone knows, there are at least two sides to every story. Here is what the television presenter Myleene Klass believes happened to her the other night. In the kitchen of her Potters Bar house, with her little daughter asleep upstairs and her boyfriend away, Ms Klass suddenly becomes aware of some men entering her garden and moving in her direction. She grabs a knife and bangs at her window. The men run off.

According to Klass's agent, Jonathan Shalit, she was subsequently warned by the police that her brandishing of an "offensive weapon" was illegal: "Myleene was aghast when she was told that the law did not allow her to defend herself at home. All she did was scream loudly and wave the knife to try to frighten them off. She is not looking to be a vigilante."

This is not how the Hertfordshire police recall their encounter at the Klass home: "Officers spoke to reassure the home owner, talked through security and gave advice in relation to the importance of reporting suspicious activity immediately to allow officers to act appropriately. At no point were any official warnings given to the home owner in relation to the use of a knife or offensive weapon in their [sic] home."

Well, agents are employed to help publicise their clients, so I suppose you could say that Mr Shalit saw the episode as a chance to get a picture of Ms Klass on the front page of a newspaper, if the story was good enough (which it was). On the other hand, we know that the police have a visceral dislike of any member of the public using physical force against criminals: they regard this as their natural monopoly and are enthusiastic in supplying evidence for the trial and conviction of any householder who dares – as they would see it – "to take the law into their own hands."

This extends beyond the confines of hearth and home. I was intrigued by the comments of a Metropolitan Police spokesman last week, following the murder in Barking of 31-year-old Sukhwinder Singh, stabbed to death after he pursued two men who had run off with the handbag of a lady called Karamjit Kaur. Doubtless Mr Singh was outraged to see Ms Kaur being punched by the muggers as they took her possessions, and his sense of natural justice – gallantry, even – must have taken over from any fear he might have had at challenging her assailants. Detective Inspector John Sandlin agreed that Mr Singh was "very brave", but added: "I would not encourage people to get involved; I'd encourage people to call 999 so the police can respond."

How many readers – do let me know – believe that had Mr Singh dialled 999, the muggers would have been apprehended and Ms Kaur's handbag returned to her? Indeed, just how much time would the police have devoted to the admittedly thankless task of detection? I think we know what would have happened. Ms Kaur might have been offered some counselling for her trauma, and given a list of "ways to reduce your chances of being mugged".

The Ministry of Justice actually puts such a list online, under the infuriatingly breezy title "Top tips for staying safe from robbery". It tells us: "If you're carrying a bag, try to have it across your chest"– yes, that would really flummox the muggers. Other "top tips" include: "Plan your route in advance", "Don't carry important documents or credit cards that you don't need", and "Only take your wallet out when you need to".

This is the sort of advice one might expect from a Foreign Office advisory note for people thinking of travelling to a particularly dangerous and lawless trouble spot. I find it both depressing and enraging that we are expected by the British government to walk our own streets in the same spirit of heightened alertness and institutionalised fearfulness.

You might think, given the thousands of extra policemen employed since this government came to power, that we would feel the streets to be safer than ever; but as we know, this has not translated so much into boots on the ground – the coppers protest that they have to spend almost all their working hours filling out forms, or performing a myriad of other acts of compliance with the baroque legislative complexity beloved of New Labour.

On the other hand, the police themselves have devised a most efficient way of reducing their ability to deal with opportunist crime on the streets – over the past decade or more, they have made it the norm to patrol on foot only in pairs (chatting happily away to each other all the while), thus cutting by half the amount of streets covered at any one time. The new-ish Metropolitan Commissioner has been making a spirited attempt to force the return of single-policeman patrolling. Sir Paul Stephenson – a much more impressive figure than his lamentable predecessor Sir Ian Blair – told me a couple of months ago that he will leap out of his car to harangue officers if he sees them patrolling in pairs; but there is a much wider problem here of an institution dangerously detached from the public it is designed to serve, a far cry from Sir Robert Peel's founding principle that "the Police are the public and the public are the police".

Fortunately, where a complacent monopoly fails to deliver, there is – in any reasonably free country – always a market alternative. For some years now, it has been noticeable how the smarter London neighbourhoods have banded together to pay private security to patrol their streets. What is also noticeable is that the private contractors do not huddle in self-protective pairs.

You can argue that this is all very well for London's rich, who can afford such special arrangements for their security, but is of no use to the poorer neighbourhoods, who are even more vulnerable to crime. Yet the BBC recently reported from Darlington that residents were paying between £2 and £4 a week to have their homes included in regular patrols by private security firms and to receive "an instant response" if they need help.

This has infuriated the Police trade union – the Police Federation of England and Wales – which says it has "huge concern" over "the powers and accountability" of these private sector providers. Of course, it is not really these firms' "powers and accountability" which is making the Police Federation concerned – they have no legal powers whatsoever – but just the very fact that their presence on the streets is a visible reminder of the public's lack of faith in the police to do the job.

Sir Ian Blair (why can't he just vanish from public life?) told the BBC in November that "I do not see community safety as a commodity to be bought and sold and therefore we shouldn't have the private sector in policing"– for all the world as if we don't "buy" policing through our taxes, but simply get it out of the goodness of their hearts. Besides, the local authorities themselves, the notional employers of police forces, use private sector security guards in housing estates, libraries and offices: so why shouldn't there be competition for the right to deliver the general public's security?

Apart from the fact that competition always has the beneficial effect of shaking up any self-serving monopoly, no private sector security firm has the right to threaten us with prosecution if we choose to defend ourselves rather than call on their services.