Leading Article: Too petty for the police?

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THE number of crimes being committed goes on rising, but the clear-up rate has been dropping. The depressing downwards trend in virtually every police force in the country has been revealed in two front-page reports in this newspaper this week. Letters in response from victims, the police and a former habitual criminal have produced interesting explanations. The overall impression left is that attempting to solve petty crimes is an unproductive use of police resources, not least because of the time-consuming and often bureaucratic procedures involved.

It is logical to question: do we ask too much of the police by expecting them to clear up not only petty crime (whose pettiness may not be evident to its victims), but also serious crimes such as assaults, rape, murder and large-scale fraud? In many ways it is a tribute to the police that our expectations remain relatively high. Confidence in their probity has taken some heavy knocks, after a long catalogue of miscarriages of justice resulting from police tampering with evidence, telling lies or extracting confessions with violence. Yet opinion polls show that as a whole the force continues to be held in relatively high regard. The criticisms to which they have been subjected may be painful, and seem to have contributed to their present poor morale. Yet that, too, is a form of tribute. We still care. The cynicism or hatred that their continental counterparts arouse is not yet widespread here.

The police themselves have sought to shift the blame for their inability to cope with rising crime by abandoning their old line that criminals are criminals, with no excuses possible for their crimes. Without in any way exculpating those who break the law, they now acknowledge that crime has a social dimension. The recent outcry over the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in Bootle suggests that the public, too, is becoming conscious that crime is something more than a manifestation of evil that must be suitably punished. If the police were shrewd, they would encourage that interest, since it is likely to reduce the intensity with which their performance is scrutinised.

For a minority on the left and right, crime will continue to be caused mainly by inequality and deprivation on the one hand and declining moral values on the other. The current debate seems to have produced a common-sense median point between these two views: if one excludes the small proportion of psychopaths, those who commit crime have suffered from a cocktail of social and moral deprivations.

Probably their family lives have been grossly inadequate. They have received little or no affection as children, perhaps some violence. Neither their parents nor their teachers have given them any sense of self-worth, let alone of moral values. They have watched too much television and developed no outside interests. In adolescence they play truant and take to petty crime to relieve their boredom and frustration. And so it may go on, from bad to worse: shoplifting, nicking cars, burglary, perhaps mugging. To someone with no real sense of identity, all these are much easier ways of acquiring money than working - even when there are jobs to be had.

Crimes against property are painful to their victims because everyone sets great store by their generally hard-earned possessions - particularly their cars. To many, a car is not just a major convenience but a thing of beauty and, possibly, a symbol of where they are in life. To the jobless, bored, frustrated teenager, cars symbolise that world of possessions so relentlessly advertised on television, from which they have been cut off. Those proud but stupid digits indicating engine size that say to their owner 'Power, performance]' say to the joyrider: 'Nick me]' They should, for a start, be suppressed by manufacturers.

According to a recent Dutch study, England and Wales have a low rate of sexual assaults and assaults with violence by European and North American standards, an average burglary rate, but the highest rate of car theft. If cars were less loved, they might be less often damaged and stolen. It is the police who bear much of the blame when the love affair goes wrong.

In this field and others, society is going to have to look increasingly to itself to fight the rising tide of petty crime. The integrity and efficiency of the police will continue to be important. But as the public comes to take a more complex and rounded view of the roots of crime, a different and perhaps more realistic view of the police's role as guardians of the peace will emerge.