Flat Earth News

Street Crime

The Guardian, July 2003

In April last year (2002) Tony Blair launched a crusade against street crime. He personally chaired eight meetings of ministers and chief constables, which chose to spend £261 million on a concerted drive to arrest, try and convict street thieves in the ten forces where the problem was worst. Blair assigned a minister to each of the ten forces and made it their personal responsibility to deliver results and then declared publicly that they would crack the problem by September - only six months after the initiaitive started.

This was the most acute example of the government intervening directly in the work of the supposedly independent chief constables. It threw their own carefully-drawn local plans into confusion. Ordinary divisions were forced to donate officers; traffic policing in some areas was cut back to the bone as more manpower was diverted. The intervention reached a pitch where, for example, according to Police Review magazine, civil servants in London were calling police in Merseyside to tell them to double the number of officers working on the initiative, a degree of central control which would once have been dismissed as unlawful.

But did it work? When September came, the Home Office announced that the project had cut street crime by 16%. The truth was not quite as simple as that: there was success but there was also failure. The whole initiative is a snapshot, first of the inherent weakness of the criminal justice system as a mechanism for cutting crime; second, of the inherent difficulties in allowing politicians to drive supposedly independent local police forces from the centre.

The Home Office scored its 16% success by fudging the figures in two ways. First, they moved the baseline. When the initiative was launched, the ten chief constables were told that their performance over the six months from April 2002 would be measured against their figures for the same period in 2001. But when they announced the results, the Home Office abandoned that plan and took advantage of the fact that street robbery had risen right up to the beginning of the initiative: they used the figures for the single final month before the initiative to give themselves a higher baseline from which to measure their result. If they had stuck to the original plan, they would have recorded an improvement of only 10%.

Second, the improvement was scored only by smearing together the figures for all ten forces. If you look at each force separately, you find that only five of the ten saw their robbery figures improve compared to the same six months of the previous year. Of the remaining five, Manchester managed to cut the total number of street robberies by a statistically insignificant 0.14%. But West Yorks' street robbery rose by 7%; Notts soared by 19%; and Merseyside and South Yorkshire each shot up by 22%. No minister high-lighted this disappointing outcome.

Furthermore, the original brief for the Street Crime Initiative explictly included "the illegal possession or use of firearms that threatens the safety of our streets". The Home Office simply ignored this whole area in its claim of success. Four months later, two Birmingham teenagers were shot dead at a party, and new crime statistics showed that gun crime had increased by 35% in the last year. Publication of HM Inspector of Constabulary's report into the initiative, due in April of this year, has been delayed.

The bottom line is that the six-month blitz succeeded in cutting the number of recorded street offences by 5,068 compared to the same period a year earlier. With a total bill of £261 million (which was spent through agencies across the whole criminal justice system) each offence which was prevented came with a bill to the taxpayer of £51,500.

That figure is a little blurred. It may understate the real cost, since it is clear that some forces cut their street crime figures by changing the way they record offences; and there is some evidence that, where the street crime was being committed by drug users funding their habit rather than by schoolchildren stealing mobile phones, the crime was displaced, with burglary and car crime rising.

On the other hand, some of those costs may have a longer-term benefit, because the street crime initiative was extended beyond its original six months; and there was a hidden profit in some areas where the sheer heat of the initiative finally forced local authorities to forge real working partnerships with their police.

Several of the chief constables who were most irritated by the initiative now acknowledge that it had its virtues, not least that it gave them extra money. And yet they remain deeply worried by the government's narrow focus on trying to cut crime by driving up detections; and by the role of politicians in disrupting local plans which draw on local knowledge and police expertise. One told us: "The Street Crimes Initiative has arrested hundreds of people and charged most of them, but we have probably arrested them 15 times before. We can arrest them 20, 25 times. It won't make a difference. As long as they are on the streets, they commit crime. While they are behind bars, they stop. And then they come out and start again.

"The Home Office were wedded to the idea of arrest before they even started talking to us about it. They are advised by people who do not understand the system. I have never seen any evidence to justify the policy of arresting persistent offenders - it does not work in the long term. It is irrelevant."

Additional research by Tamsen Courtenay

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