Earlier this week, using a set of very carefully chosen words, Theresa May appeared to suggest that there was no connection between falling police numbers and rising violent crime.
She was wrong.
Of course the rise in violence is not only about police numbers (there are a hugely complex combination of factors in play), but implying that there is no connection at all between those two things defies both common sense and the professional experience of thousands of police officers, my own included.
And it isn’t the first time that she has been wrong about policing.
In 2010, in her first speech as Home Secretary to the annual Police Federation Conference, she stated that the job of the police was “nothing more, and nothing less, than to cut crime.”
The job of the police is about so much more than just crime. It is about saving lives and finding lost children and responding to people in mental health crisis and dealing with car crashes and delivering unbearable news to families who have lost loved ones and ten thousand other things besides. But the new Home Secretary appeared to have no awareness of or understanding for these things.
In her 2014 speech to the Federation Conference, she told her audience that crime was down and that police reform was working. It became her repeated mantra every time the government’s approach to policing was challenged or questioned.
She was wrong.
She was wrong about crime. Recorded crime might have been falling at the time of her speech, but recorded crime is only ever a significant underestimate of the reality. Domestic Violence and sexual offences and youth violence and child sexual exploitation are all examples of crimes that are very significantly under-reported. And if you don’t know what the numbers are in the first place, how can you be certain that they are falling? In any case, five years after her speech, there can be no doubt that crime is actually rising – certainly crime of the most serious kinds. She was wrong about police reform too. She had been talking about the notion of reform since 2010, but had never actually defined what she meant by the term. Instead, the police service had been on the receiving end of a succession of isolated changes without any reference to their place in a bigger plan. We had the puzzle pieces, but no picture on the box to describe how they were supposed to fit together. In late 2018, the National Audit Office published a report in which they stated that the Home Office had “no overarching strategy for policing”. And, if you don’t know where you’re going, how on earth can you tell if you’ve arrived?
Crime is not down and police reform is not working.
Also in 2014, she set out to challenge the police use of Stop & Search. She overtly politicised an operational police tactic and her intervention led to huge reductions in the use of the power.
Not in demanding the the police use the power appropriately and well, but in turning it into a political issue and overseeing a hugely damaging reduction in its use. There is, in my professional experience, an absolute connection between the effective use of Stop & Search and levels of street violence. And it is not difficult now to establish a correlation between falling police numbers, falling Stop & Search and rising knife crime.
In her 2015 speech to the Federation, she responded in uncompromising fashion to officers who had issued repeated warnings about the likely consequences of government cuts to policing. She told them that they were ‘scaremongering’. She told them they were ‘crying wolf’.
Government cuts have had devastating consequences for policing. As they have for every other part of the public sector. You cannot possibly cut 44,000 officers and staff from policing in England & Wales and expect it to carry on as if nothing has changed. Of course there is a connection between falling policing numbers and rising violence. And it is a consequence of conscious, deliberate government policy
I have been writing about for policing for some time now and, whenever I have raised concerns in the past – not least about the actions of government – I have always taken care to avoid making it personal. I have always tried to stick to the facts – to be objective and constructive. In naming names now – or one name in particular – I am breaking my own unwritten rule. But I have read and watched the news of recent days with a growing mixture of anger and despair, and I find that I cannot remain silent. Theresa May has been wrong about policing at almost every point along the way and she and her government have done untold damage to a job that I love with all my heart and soul.
There are three really important footnotes I need to add here.
Firstly, for the avoidance of any possible misunderstanding, I do not think Theresa May is solely to blame for rising violence and for the deaths of young people on our streets. The situation is infinitely more complicated than that.
Secondly, I do not think for one moment that policing is fine just as it is – that there is no requirement for reform of any kind. Of course there is. I have never met a good copper who thinks that policing requires no further improvement. There is always more to be done. But reform needs to be led by those who have a deep understanding of – and appreciation for – the Job and its people.
Finally, this blog is absolutely not for political use. I think that the current Government is an absolute train wreck. But I think that the current Opposition is an absolute train wreck too. There is an urgent need now for politicians of real courage and character (irrespective of party or persuasion) to stand up and speak up and do the right thing.
People are dying out there.