The crime rate in England rose year on year for forty years from 1955 to 1995. Then it fell steadily for twenty years until 2015. Something happened, but what was it? This short paper is focuses on the acquisitive crime rate (theft, burglary, robbery, etc.). Acquisitive crime is on the rise again, will we learn from history?
A changing society had increased crime, plus the inability of traditional controls to work. Major factors included: increased dealing in illegal drugs; stealing to support addiction to new drugs; localised poverty and inequality; unemployment in traditional occupations; increasing availability of small, expensive, desirable, electronic items and the temptations of consumerism. Policing failed to keep pace with the changes and struggled with the ever-increasing crime wave.
Then, in a few short years, the steady increase in crime was stalled and then reversed by a perfect storm of policing in the late 1990s.
Several factors had combined to enhance policing performance, followed by further changes that forced down crime for the first fifteen years of the new century. We now seem to be entering another era, where crime is once again on the rise. Perhaps now is a good time to review and better understand why it fell in the first place.
From 1985 to 2012 I was a police officer in London, not guiding events but experiencing the changes, at or near the frontline. I held five ranks and around fifteen jobs, including national and international roles, allowing me to view policing from different perspectives. It was hard to see, at the time, that 1995 was a turning point. The crime rate slowed and then fell; who could have foreseen that it would fall for the next twenty years? The causes of a sea change in a major social phenomenon like crime are hard to identify and it is common sense to seek them in societal change. This paper suggests that something else happened, a sudden ability of government agencies to do their job.
This was a quiet revolution of law, technology and innovation that came together to create a perfect storm. It was largely free of politics and corruption, it is merely a story of efficient and effective public service that changed the lives of millions for the better.
Politics and corruption
Politics and corruption can easily distort policing so I just want explain how these malign influences were minimised in this story. British policing has traditionally been politicised at arm’s length. The Home Secretary (the title of the UK’s Minister of Interior) controlled half the funding for about forty police forces across England and Wales of which the biggest was the Metropolitan Police (with about a fifth of the total resources). The other half was controlled by local committees composed of local politicians and officials). There was no national police force.
The local Chief of Police was appointed by the local committee and the Home Secretary approved the appointment. Such appointments were neither political nor contentious. This created a tri-partite system, balanced between the Chief Officer, the local committee and the Home Secretary with only the Home Secretary being a politician. This dull but important governance system of the 1950s and 1960s proved resilient against the coming social turmoil created by the economic and social turbulence of the 1970s and 1980s.
One of the ingredients for our perfect storm in the 1990s was added in 1979. The new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, doubled police pay overnight and this level was broadly maintained for thirty years. The political motive for this decision is not for this paper, but the long-term effect on police personnel was significant. Policing had been seen previously as a blue-collar job but the new pay and prospects started to attract well-educated recruits. By the mid-eighties the ‘graduate programme’ that sent promising police recruits to university was discontinued because so many graduates were joining directly. These recruits of the eighties were the middle managers of the nineties. In our perfect storm of policing in the late nineties, these bright men and women were spread across the service in operational command of the frontline, willing and able to apply the new technologies and innovations. The frontline itself was composed of people selected after tight competition for well-paid places. This is an important factor in a profession which is led from the street by the ‘officer on scene’ or the ‘officer in the case’.
The inexorable rise in crime during the eighties and early nineties became a real political issue and in the absence of any other ideas, the government threw money at the problem. This led to a significant building programme for police stations and courts, the first since the 1890s. New buildings are a backdrop to our perfect storm rather than an active ingredient but it is perhaps indicative that, at this time policing was valued.
A corrupt police force could not have conducted the 1990s perfect storm against crime. A corrupt police force is an ineffective one, driven by private gain instead of public service. In the late 1970s the Metropolitan Police in particular was viewed cynically by colleagues outside London as the “best police force that money could buy”. The pay rise of 1979 was an important ingredient in eradicating widespread corruption, along with regular internal transfers, intrusive supervision and local empowerment, plus a high-profile investigation into police criminality code-named Operation Countryman. Interestingly, only eight officers were arrested and none convicted and yet the impact of this and the other reforms was dramatic. When I first became a uniform constable in South London in 1986, corrupt practices were already being referred to in the past tense. Many countries suffer from the ‘taxing’ of motorists by uniform police officers for private gain; it is important to understand that this practice was not only rare, but inconceivable in the English context.
The criminal justice legislation was transformed between 1985 and 2005. The general effect was to close-up a large number of loop-holes that had allowed charged criminals to escape “on a technicality”. Three specific laws changed the policing environment fundamentally and one drove the storm itself.
PACE is England’s Criminal Procedure Code. This replaced “Judges’ Rules”, a collection of judgements that were liberally interpreted by different police officers in different police stations. Poor practice included detectives detaining a person one day and commencing questioning some days later. PACE limited detention periods and clarified how detainees were treated and codified the whole evidential process; it also created the Crown Prosecution Service which transferred conduct of the prosecution of routine crimes from police to lawyers. PACE came into force just as I came out of Police Training School so this professionalisation of evidence-gathering was all I ever knew.
The CDA introduced multiple agencies to policing. Throughout my career the police had tried to work with other agencies, particularly local councils responsible for urban design, lighting, housing and social care. This is especially relevant for vulnerable people who are particularly prone to crime as victims or perpetrators. All too often the operational cooperation between local police and council was limited, with local councils unable to prioritise specific police requests for help. Section 17 of the CDA requires parish and town councils to consider the impact of all their functions and decisions on crime in their local area. Suddenly the calls for help were reversed as local authorities were forced to consider something for which they lacked expertise, policing.
It is hard to overestimate the impact of this legal requirement. This was the policing equivalent of the Prussians arriving at Waterloo. The tide of the battle had already turned but suddenly a whole new army turned up out of nowhere to clinch the victory. The term “multi-agency” suddenly appeared in the policing environment as tens of thousands individual cases were discussed and managed via Crime & Disorder Reduction Partnerships.
POCA transformed the policing of acquisitive crime. Before 2002 virtually all convicted criminals kept the proceeds of the crimes for which they were convicted (unless they were actually still in possession of it). In the ten years before POCA the average annual recovery from criminals was a mere £15m; over the next ten years the average increased exponentionally, levelling out to over £200m p.a. by 2015. The people targeted by policing did not change at all, it is just that they no longer kept the money. The deterrent value was that tens of thousands of criminals lost over a billion pounds; in the previous decade they would have kept it. From a criminal perspective, the seizures must have seemed random and devastating; disrupting organised crime and causing financial ruin. Previously, cash was ignored, now it was seized and gone, just like that. Now bank accounts, real estate, pensions were all being confiscated. The previously hollow threat, “crime doesn’t pay” was suddenly coming true.
Computers & innovation
Policing proved to be unusually suited to computerisation, which seems counter-intuitive in such an up-close and personal profession. This happened in two ways: a performance driven workforce and intelligence led policing.
In the early nineties computers started to be used to deploy officers to incidents and to record the results. Detailed timely management information was available for the first time. This was particularly useful to manage and supervise a 24/7 organisation delivering services out in the community. The use of deployment data by police managers was boosted by similar thinking in the Home Office where the notion took hold that crime could be managed by objective setting and overt planning. This was articulated in improved administration under the Police and Magistrates Courts Act 1994. This positive approach led to actively seeking good practice and a visit by Metropolitan Police managers to Bill Bratton’s New York Police Department in 1996. The intrusive supervision of his ‘Compstat’ meetings, in which individual Precinct Commanders were quizzed before their peers by senior officers, was converted into a gentler, but still intrusive equivalent in London. The practice spread quickly across the country and ‘key performance indicators’ were already a major driver for operational action against acquisitive crime as the new millennium dawned. Over time the unintelligent use of performance data for “target-setting” has clouded police thinking, but in the late 1990s it brought clarity to complex overlapping issues that had been hard for police managers to see at all.
Between 1995 and 2000, the concept of ‘ILP’ was developed following the deployment of intelligence software like CRIMINT in 1994 in the Metropolitan Police. This culminated in the formal launch of ILP as the National Intelligence Model in 2000. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this change. For the first ten years of my career I gathered and used my own information from the station’s collated card index, with all the constraints that involved. The people who came to the attention of patrolling and detective officers like me, tended to be those whose behaviour resulted in police attention. In a real sense, it was a self-selecting group and the police information about them was self-perpetuating. A few of these were prolific criminals but many people with a low or nil police profile were generating the real crime problem, under the police ‘radar’.
As intelligence units grew, the intelligence was pooled, cross-referenced by computer and massively enhanced by what we now call ‘big data’, the matching of crucial minutiae or ‘clues’. This allowed police officers to be directed to hotspots of crime. By 1997 ILP in London reached its apogee with the innovation of the ‘Briefing Officer’; the direct tasking of police officers to where they could best intervene against crime. ILP has continued to develop better analytical programmes, direct access to multiple databases and better briefing equipment to remote and multiple police locations. Good local police had always had a rough idea of who was committing crime and where, but lack of precision is fatal for criminal justice success. Crime mapping and time analysis directed officers far more precisely to particular places, times and people. High tech cameras, phone analysis, and DNA identification, originally used only for serious crime was routinely identifying ordinary robbers and burglars. ‘Petty’ car thieves, pickpockets and burglars started to get caught red-handed and, over time, police intelligence units had a far better understanding of what was really happening and were able to focus resources to close the net even tighter. Crucially, this focused intelligence-led approach resulted in clear evidence for successful prosecutions by an adequately resourced CPS.
Better technology was matched by innovation. The rise in crime had been studied extensively in North American and British universities and academic concepts had gained traction. The use of ‘Crime Science’, applying natural and social sciences to reduce crime, had been adopted into London police senior manager thinking. The concept of “designing out crime” in local authority planning was implemented via the Crime Reduction Partnerships created by the CDA. Better physical security was demanded by consumers buying cars and electronic goods and for home security, which made acquisitive crime more difficult, although early innovations like vehicle central locking were swiftly countered by smart young criminals. The Audit Commission’s “Tackling crime effectively” encouraged ILP. The willingness of senior police to consider and implement academic concepts speaks to a more practical approach by academics and a more academic approach by police. A meeting of minds that can be traced back to the cadre of people attracted to policing since the pay rise of 1979.
Between 2001 and 2006 the number of police officers in London rose by over 20% having remained stable since 1983. This was replicated across the country driven by national government policy. Perhaps the battle against acquisitive crime had already been won by the perfect storm of the late 1990s, but it still seems likely that the virtuous spiral of declining crime rates was enhanced by fresh, albeit untrained, resources. The new resource was deployed to the neighbourhood frontline, specifically tasked with integrating with the community. It was a return to the ‘bobby on the beat’ who had been absent since the 1970s, but this time the organisational support to the frontline was radically different. The new officers were led by a new generation of experienced well-educated middle and now senior managers, aided by performance-management techniques and intelligence-led tasking. They were bringing cases to an experienced prosecution service equipped with effective legislation that correctly identified guilt and confiscated assets. The service was untroubled by corruption and political interference and helped by multi-agency cooperation. It was adequately, even generously resourced. By 2010 crime rates had fallen to rates unseen since the 1970s, in a country whose population had risen over 20% from 43m to 53m.
The lesson of history
Crime has started to rise again in 2015, after falling consistently for twenty years. The lesson we should take from history is that policing can reverse this trend. We can bring crime rates down. It may be that the methods used in the late nineties can provide clues for today’s policy-makers in England (and abroad) to take control of policing and use it to reduce crime. In the early nineties we believed that crime would rise forever and that nothing could be done to reduce it. We were wrong.