In the nine years since I began writing about London, I have found no subject more maddening to cover than that of policing and crime. Knackered cliches, populist rhetoric and turgid tiffs about slippery statistics have filled too much of the space where solid policy and focussed debate ought to be. Politicians have been part of the problem, but that isn’t all their fault. Stupid journalism and the anxious demands of a London public that can’t be blamed for often being poorly informed make it harder for them to raise their game, just as it does for senior officers to be really candid about what is happening and what does and does not work.
All that needs to change. The Metropolitan Police Service now has a new commissioner, Cressida Dick, the first woman to get the job. It goes without saying that her task will require having a strong working relationship with the still-new London Mayor Sadiq Khan and his deputy for policing and crime in order to prevent and solve crime in the capital of every kind. This should involve enlisting the greatest possible support of Londoners in doing so. It may entail a degree of honesty that Londoners are not used to but certainly deserve.
Take the business of police numbers, a subject that provided endless hours of intellectual numbness during the mayoralty of Boris Johnson. It was fine for London Assembly members to grill him, his lieutenants and senior officers about whether or not there were exactly 32,000 warranted officers on the Met payroll at any given time, and important to establish if those officers ended up performing bureaucratic tasks previously performed by much-derided “back office” staff let go in order to reinforce that nebulous concept “the frontline”. But less attention was devoted to the actual effectiveness of the Met than might have been.
The closure of police stations produced similar eye-glazing tedium. Some AMs seemed more troubled by their sale than whether those buildings were a source of strength in the contest with criminality. The disposal of parts of the Met’s property portfolio was a legitimate subject for scrutiny – was Johnson’s straight sell-off policy in the best interests of the city? But the news that few members of the public found them useful often seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Police personnel matter as do the buildings they use, but as Mayor Khan and Commissioner Dick put their strategy in place they could do worse than dig out the transcript of three criminologists dismantling a draft of Johnson’s crime and policing plan four years ago. A miasma of meaningless targets was made denser still by the “common sense” assertion that public confidence in the police resulted directly from the presence of “bobbies on the beat”.
It was observed by the criminologists that a truly useful measure of confidence would be the extent to which people are prepared to report crime, assist with investigations and give evidence. It might also be to do with feeling able to depend on police officers turning up when requested to and what they do when they arrive and afterwards. This is basic stuff that needs to be done well and efficiently joined up. A public relations drawback might be that such enhancements to the service could have the effect of pushing crime figures up, as more people report more incidents. But do we want reassuring numbers more than we want our police service getting better at its job? Be honest.
One of the steeliest moments in Sadiq Khan’s election campaign was when he declared that he would be “the British Muslim who takes the fight to the extremists”. The terror threat is grave and community co-operation can help to combat it. The same relationship applies to crime of every kind, and that is why the Met’s relationship with Londoners is vital. Dick’s predecessor Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe brought stability after the turmoil of Johnson’s first term, during which riots ripped through the place and two other commissioners resigned. She and Khan must use that solid platform to truly strengthen the police and avoid the dodgy vacuities of past.