Finding a real job for Bobby

Our police force is not about crime, it's about symbols, says Peter Waddington
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The Independent Online
The Audit Commission, like most of us, believes it knows what the police are employed to do: prevent and detect crime. It is against this definition that it has assessed the effectiveness of the police in its report "Streetwise - Effective Police Patrol", published yesterday. The commission finds the police in general, and beat patrol in particular, to be woefully inadequate, and concludes that the public's demand for "more bobbies on the beat" is misplaced.

Certainly there is precious little evidence that police officers wandering aimlessly about have much impact on crime. Establishing a police force suppresses criminal activity to an enormous extent. But the number of police and their deployment has hardly any discernible impact. The reasons are apparent as soon as the mythology of policing is stripped away.

First, virtually no society has enough police officers. A force of 130,000 - one officer for 500 citizens - seems reasonable. But those officers must provide 24-hour cover, and will need time off for leave, training and sickness. Even the most avid supporter of more "bobbies on the beat" will also demand detectives, traffic patrols, dog handlers and mounted officers, and all the other specialisms that are taken for granted. As the Audit Commission acknowledges, this almost inevitably means that sizeable towns are actually policed by a handful of officers.

Second, even if there were enough police patrolling the streets it is unlikely they would stumble across much crime. Some years ago Home Office researchers calculated that under the most favourable circumstances a patrolling police officer would pass within a hundred yards of a burglary in progress once every eight years. Even then, it is unlikely that the officer would be aware of the proximity, since the burglar would be securely hidden from view in someone else's property.

Third, when it comes to discovering offences and detecting offenders, the police are not the main players. Ordinary members of the public are far more influential: if you and I decide not to report crimes (and we do so in roughly a third to a quarter of cases) then the police remain ignorant of them; unless the offender is unambiguously identified at the time of the offence, there is little likelihood of an arrest.

Finally, it is facile to believe that the police could do much to influence crime. Let me illustrate this with the prosaic example of fairs. Before the late 19th-century fairs were occasions for social mayhem, not infrequently concluding with the deployment of the militia. All this changed about a hundred years ago, not because of anything the police did, but because of the influence of Phineas T Barnum. It was the commercialisation of fairs that transformed them into orderly and relatively crime-free forms of respectable entertainment. The decision of government to relax restrictions on gaming or loosen the regulation of public-house opening times is likely to have a more profound effect on crime than anything the Audit Commission could conceivably recommend.

So as an instrument of crime-fighting, policing is largely an irrelevance. This is true not only of Britain, but throughout the world. Does this mean the police have universally failed, or that the criteria against which they are measured are inappropriate?

Certainly, the police do much more than simply fight crime, indeed more of their time is devoted to other tasks. They are increasingly a "secret social service", a role deplored in a recent government White Paper and despised by the police themselves.

The problem is that it is enormously difficult to distinguish clearly between what is and is not "police work". A missing child may tragically turn out to be a murder; a collapsed elderly person may have been the victim of crime; a crashed car might be stolen. The division between crime and non-crime is a permeable one indeed.

There is more the police could do to deal effectively with the enormous range of demands the public makes on them. However, the greatest inhibition is the belief that solving crime is the principal task of the police. In this, the Audit Commission is more culpable than most. The persistent emphasis that it has given to crime-fighting in its various reports into policing merely reinforces the police's tendency to dismiss any wider role as a distraction.

Instead of chastising the public for turning to the police - as the Audit Commission in effect did yesterday in relation to 999 calls - we should ask why it does so. The answer is that the public does perceive the service as having a wider role: to dispense authority. When people feel they cannot deal with a situation, they ask the police to intervene. The reason that the public welcomes the sight of patrolling police and demands more of them, is that the beat officer represents the authority of the state over public space.

This wider writ of the law is the reason why police become so annoyed at the suggestion that there are "no-go" areas, for such places fundamentally challenge the authority of the police, the law and ultimately the state itself. Consider the lengths to which the authorities go to ensure that RUC officers can patrol the streets of Northern Ireland: a squad of heavily armed soldiers, with others in reserve, escorts a lone constable. This cannot conceivably be justified in crime-fighting terms, but testifies to the symbolic importance of patrol.

There is a nice irony in all this, for the available evidence indicates that crime flourishes in conditions devoid of an authoritative order. The murder rate in New York has declined markedly in the last few years. The Commissioner of the New York Police attributes this reduction to police action targeting beggars, fare-dodgers and windscreen cleaners at traffic lights. The connection is known as the "broken windows hypothesis": once a single window is broken and not repaired, the remaining windows in an empty building are smashed. Maintaining low-level order sustains a virtuous cycle that militates against more serious crime. The withdrawal of authority from public spaces, of which the disappearance of the beat police officer is merely one part, leans in the opposite direction. If the police are not the authority on the streets, who is? The local yobs? Drug dealers?

The Audit Commission report on beat patrol poses a fundamental dilemma now being experienced by many public services: how do we establish the value of such symbolic functions? Economic rationality and public accountability demand that public services such as the police use their resources effectively to achieve purposes of which the public approve. But symbolic functions are inherently difficult to evaluate. The danger is that they will therefore be ignored and left to wither.

The writer is professor of sociology at the University of Reading, and author of 'Calling the Police' (Avebury 1993).