Smash and grab the publicity

Mass police raids are about headlines, not beating crime, says Nick Cohen

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WHO could not be reassured by the sight of 12,000 police officers rounding up the nation's burglars? Or, to put it another way, who would whine about civil rights when all the politicians bunched in that narrow strip of land which separates Michael Howard from Jack Straw demand toughness?

The seasonally titled Operation Christmas Cracker was hailed by all the police forces involved as a great success. Dawn raids on the homes of 3,700 suspected burglars last Tuesday netted about pounds 1.5m of stolen property and led to 2,300 arrests. David Blakey, West Mercia's chief constable, who co-ordinated the operation, told thieves that they ran a greater risk than ever before of being brought to justice. Officers had struck "a resounding blow against these criminals who bring misery" - and, he did not add, an equally resounding blow against the 1,400 householders who turned out to be innocent. One tenth of all officers in England and Wales were involved in the biggest British police action ever. It was inspired by Operation Bumblebee, the Metropolitan Police's ongoing assault on burglary, the stated aim of which is to show the public "we care about burglary".

Bumblebee and Cracker are all about publicity. Journalists are invited to witness mass raids on hundreds of homes. Television cameras are there to record officers breaking and entering. Bumblebee's eight raids have been followed by road shows where victims come along to identify stolen goods and be told about crime prevention.

But a caring police force anxious to be seen to be doing something has its casualties, as Julia Somerville and other victims of close relations between the police and press have discovered. If you saw the television pictures last week of officers charging into a house like the SAS, you would naturally assume that the man inside was a violent criminal. So would his neighbours. But he may not be convicted; he may not even have been arrested.

If arguments about civil liberties seem a bit wet, consider a different question: do these flamboyant displays work? When Operation Bumblebee began, Police Review, the journal for thinking officers, said that known burglars were being left undisturbed for weeks so they could be arrested on the day of the big swoop. The same pattern was followed before Operation Christmas Cracker; even journalists were briefed on the raids a week before.

While the press is being squared and targets collected, burglars are protected like grouse in the close season. Then, the Glorious Twelfth of the British Police dawns and - crash - sledge hammers go through doors, cameras whirr and a "resounding blow" is struck.

This would matter less if high-profile raids were a great success. But they are not. In seven Bumblebee raids between June 1993 and May 1995, police searched 4,401 homes and arrested 3,276 people. But when the Home Office's national crime figures for the year ending June 1955 came out, New Scotland Yard was faced with grim news: the number of burglaries in London had risen by 6 per cent even though they had fallen nationally by 5 per cent.

The Met explained the "blip" by saying that it had changed its methods and reclassified crimes previously listed as criminal damage as burglary. It pointed to a rise in the clear-up rate for burglary in London as evidence that the policy was working. But again there are difficulties. For most people success would mean catching a crook and convicting him. Nobody knows whether Bumblebee-type operations lead to more criminals being found guilty in court but the national picture is dismal. Last year, 1.2 million burglaries were reported in England and Wales; 268,883 were "cleared up" and only 49,491 burglars were convicted. The statistic shows not only that thieving is one of the few safe professions left but that the current emphasis on tough policing and tougher penalties will not cut crime because too few criminals are convicted.

The British police have always known this and have emphasised the importance of preventing crime and maintaining order. Unfortunately, government policy is taking the police away from these wider social responsibilities.

Pique explains the Home Office's new strategy. Throughout the 1980s good salaries, manpower and resources were thrown at the police, but the recorded crime rate doubled. Conservatives could not blame themselves; could not accept that there was a price to pay for creating a country that tolerated 19 per cent of people of working age living in households where no one had a job. Instead, they have blamed the police. Chief constables have been put on contracts, and have to operate with league tables and performance indicators. Salaries have fallen. In this new regime, a force is successful if it can demonstrate that it clears up a lot of crime.

The first consequence has been that official crime figures are becoming meaningless. Michael Howard boasts that they are falling and that Conservative law-and-order policies are a triumph, but such claims ignore the evidence that crime is rising, detailed in the British Crime Survey, which looks at how many people have been victims. The increase does not show in the crime figures, in part because police forces now have an incentive not to record every crime they are told about. If they do they will fall down the league tables.

More significantly, the chief objective has become pleasing the Home Office by solving crimes. This may seem laudable (it is, after all, what police officers are meant to do) but in practice it means that the police concentrate on clearing up crimes that can be solved easily and place less emphasis on preserving order.

An officer who goes into a pub, stops a fight and sends everyone home has done a good job by traditional standards. But he has made no arrests so his success is not recorded. If he insults the drinkers and starts a mini-riot, arrests and convictions follow and the clear-up rate of his force rises. Robert Reiner, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, says he cannot think of a better way to reward failure and penalise success.

Conservative policing policy also encourages attempts to solve thousands of crimes in one dramatic swoop. The dawn chorus of sledge hammers and breaking glass is likely to become familiar.

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