US police have the right idea

Article for the Brighton Evening Argus

Last week Nick Herbert, MP for Arundel and South Downs and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, called for US sheriff-style officers to be the latest weapon in the fight against crime.

Here he talks in detail about what he learned from his visit to Los Angeles where he met the city's chief of police, Bill Bratton.

If the latest announcement from Sussex Police is to be believed, we don't need to worry about crime.

According to a headline on its website, "crime levels in Sussex are at a record low".

Since crime rates have exploded over the last half century, reaching about ten times the level they were in the Fifties, this claim is truly remarkable.

But on reading the small print, all becomes clear: the "record low" turns out to be a comparison with crime only nine years ago. Not quite so impressive.

The assistant chief constable goes on to claim that "Sussex is an increasingly safe place to live, work and visit".

He points out that burglaries of people's homes and vehicle crime have more than halved in the past decade.

All well and good - although with houses and vehicles increasingly being protected with sophisticated security, this isn't so remarkable.

What the assistant chief constable forgot to mention was that crimes of violence against the person in Sussex actually increased last year.

More than 28,000 victims might disagree that the area is "increasingly safe".

Sussex Police praise their own achievement in increasing the rate of sanction detections - the proportion of crimes for which they say offenders are "brought to book".

That's good, too - except that they don't mention that more than two thirds of crimes still aren't detected, or that over half of the offences "brought to book" merely receive cautions, warnings or penalty notices, rather than being taken to court.

I'll be the first to credit Sussex Police with being a good force and praise their achievements - for instance, their commitment to neighbourhood policing, which I've seen for myself. I know how hard officers work in my constituency.

But I'll also be the first to warn senior officers about the dangers of spin.

This is why we desperately need the crime statistics to be published independently.

The public needs to have faith in the figures.

People know what is happening in their own communities.

This summer has seen a spate of knife attacks on the Sussex coast, with two fatalities.

Nationally, knives are now involved in 150,000 violent crimes a year and gunrelated violence has quadrupled in less than a decade.

A recent poll found that nearly half of the public feels increasingly threatened by gun and knife crime, with 45 per cent saying that their area is less safe than it was five years ago.

No one knows more about how to beat crime than the Los Angeles Police Chief, Bill Bratton. He's one of the greatest crime fighters in the world.

As commissioner of police in New York in the Nineties, Bratton was credited, along with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with cutting crime in New York by 75 per cent.

The success was attributed to "zero tolerance" policing, increasing officers on the streets, and holding them accountable.

Earlier this month I went to see Bratton in Los Angeles where, in spite of having far fewer police officers than in New York, he has cut the number of murders and aggravated assaults in the city by a fifth in the last two years.

Of course we can't directly compare Sussex with the two largest cities in the United States. But we can and should learn from Bratton's success.

First, we need police officers out on the streets.

Bratton warned me that, across the US, a switch of resources to counter-terrorist activity has seen a reduction in police numbers, with the result that violent crime is rising again.

There's a lesson for Britain here - Gordon Brown has cut the community support officers he promised us by 8,000.

That's 171 fewer uniformed officers on streets in Sussex than we were promised.

Second, in New York, local precinct commanders were accountable to the police chief, who was accountable to the mayor, who was accountable to the electorate.

If precinct commanders or Bratton did not cut crime they would lose their jobs.

If Giuliani did not cut crime he would lose the next election. The entire police department was held to account for its performance in cutting crime.

But in Britain, chief constables answer mostly to the Home Secretary and partly to police authorities, which are invisible to the public.

A recent survey found that 94 per cent of people could not name the chairman of their police authority.

I do know our local chairman, and he's a very good man.

It's certainly no reflection on him, or Sussex police officers, that I'm calling for a different system which releases them from the constraints of government bureaucracy.

I'm convinced that we will not re-build the bridge between police and the communities they serve until we ensure that police chiefs answer to the people rather than Whitehall.

So police authorities should be replaced by directly elected commissioners or mayors. Chief constables would retain "operational responsibility" for day-to-day policing - but they would be appointed and dismissed by the commissioners, who would make their own policing plans and control local budgets.

A direct and transparent funding arrangement between voters and elected commissioners would enable the public to judge the effectiveness of the policing they pay for. Last month, I joined David Cameron to announce these plans in a new crimefighting manifesto.

"It's time to fight back" called for three-dimensional action against crime, with more police on the streets, tougher sentences and the strengthening of families and communities.

No sooner had we launched the plan than the former chief constable of Sussex, Ken Jones, publicly criticised it, saying that he was baffled by our description of a "broken society", and that violent crime had fallen.

I usually have a lot of time for Ken, but I'm afraid his comments sealed my conviction that we need to change the system.

My constituents don't want to be told by police chiefs that the people have got it all wrong about crime.

They want something to be done about it.

Local commissioners elected by the community, and the chief constables they appointed, would have to deliver, as Giuliani and Bratton did.

And I doubt that commissioners or police chiefs who remained baffled by public concern over crime would keep their jobs for very long.


Document type

Articles

Published

24 September 2007

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