Leading Article: Co-operation in fighting crime

TODAY'S reports on the increasing use of unorthodox policing - be it vigilantes, guardian angels or private security forces - testify to public concern that crime is getting out of hand. There are other symptoms - the east London pensioners who, even in daylight, venture into the street only in pairs for fear of being mugged. Crime statistics also tell the story: recorded offences rose nationally by 9 per cent over the past year.

The Government is under fierce pressure to do something. After all, it was the Conservatives who raised the political profile of crime and won votes by promising to tackle the problem. Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, has relentlessly highlighted their failure and continues to inflict damage on the Government's Achilles heel at every opportunity. Not surprisingly, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is preparing to respond with a tough message on crime for the Conservative Party conference, and so, he hopes, quell discontent particularly among right-wingers.

The answer to the problem certainly does not lie with vigilantes. Summary justice is almost inevitably injustice. Nor should government be tempted to let private policing initiatives pick up its public responsibility for dealing with crime. If government abdicates those responsibilities, Britain will find itself with well-policed wealthy suburbs and no-go, abandoned poor areas. Such a development would undermine a fundamental principle of British life: that each citizen is entitled to equal protection under the law. This is a principle that is already abused: for all the complaints of the middle classes, people in poor districts are much more likely to fall victim to crime.

So how do the authorities in 1993 deliver the promise of the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act, that 'the primary object of an efficient police is prevention of crime'? The answer must surely be by using imagination. Law enforcement has never been static: when criminals took to vehicles, the police were motorised. So now, with criminals hidden by the anonymity of city life, the police must think again about their tactics.

An encouraging indicator of today's reports is that they highlight a recognition among some people that they themselves must do something to combat crime. This, at least, is a step forward, since the police cannot hope to make an impact without co-operation. That said, the police have a difficult job harnessing communities against crime. Reports yesterday that only 53 per cent of southerners know their neighbours' first names illustrate how easily criminals can escape undetected in a fragmented society.

So the authorities will have to be imaginative in mobilising and reinvigorating communities if they are going to combat crime. There are simply not enough police to do the job otherwise. And there never were. The much romanticised bobby on the beat did not stop crime alone: communities backed him up. Schemes such as Neighbourhood Watch have attempted to reinvent these old supports for policing, but much more needs to be done. Louis XV's police chief once boasted: 'Sire, whenever three people speak to one another in the street, one of them will be mine.' One would not advocate a Bourbon-style police state, but, until the police win the co-operation and respect of most citizens, the war against crime will be marked by lost battles.