Be trusted, and be seen to be trusted: Labour and policing

Public trust in the police is crumbling. The YouGov monthly tracker shows that people believing the ‘police are doing a good job’ has declined from 77% in December 2019 to 50% in January 2024. Those who think the ‘police are doing a bad job’ have increased from 17% to 40% over the same period.

Talk to retailers facing an epidemic of looting, or anyone waking up this morning to find their homes ransacked, or women reporting sexual assault, and they will tell you the same thing: often the police don’t show up, and if they do, nothing much happens. Or you can ask Andy Cooke, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, who states ‘public trust in the police is hanging by a thread’.

This collapse in trust is more than a reflection of a failing public service, cut by the Tories by 20,000 officers, and undermined by successive Tory Home Secretaries. It matters more because our entire policing model is based on trust. The Peelite principles determine that our police are a civilian, citizen-led service, and their authority derives from the consent of the public, not from Marsham Street. Where trust fails, policing falters. And when consent is withdrawn, criminals prosper.

It is easy to blame the collapse in trust on successive, egregious scandals: Wayne Couzens’ murder of Sarah Everard, and the subsequent mishandling of those protesting. PC Jamie Lewis and PC Deniz Jaffer taking and sharing images of the murdered bodies of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman in 2020. A 15-year-old girl – Child Q – strip-searched by Met Police officers at school. Met Police officer David Carrick, who admitted 49 charges, including 24 counts of rape, against 12 women.

These terrible events suggest a deeper culture of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and a failure in recruitment processes, vetting, and disciplinary procedures. Louise Casey’s landmark review suggests that in London ‘policing by consent [was] broken’.

But far more insidious is not the high-profile, stomach-churning scandals, but the steady failure of the police to prevent, detect, and solve crimes. Today, nine in ten crimes go unsolved.

Here, the police are not to blame. They can only work within a landscape drawn by others. The Tories’ and Lib Dems’ removal of 20,000 police from England and Wales stands as one of the most stupid public policies since the Poll Tax. The effort to rectify this folly has been too little, too late. Fresh-faced recruits are replacing the experienced officers who the Tories scrapped.

Labour’s crime Mission talks rightly about the urgent need to ‘rebuild public confidence in policing and the criminal justice system.’ This can be achieved by fast-tracking court procedures, recruiting more detectives at senior levels, and using technology to improve crime prevention and detection along the lines suggested by the Tony Blair Institute (TBI) and others.

But the most important initiative is to return to neighbourhood policing. This means stable local teams, enmeshed in their communities, engaged in regular foot patrols on our estates, town centres, and public spaces. This is the one thing which does more than anything else to reassure the public and prevent crime, which is why I am making it the centrepiece of my campaign to be police and crime commissioner in Sussex.

The College of Policing guidance states that ‘it is important that you have a targeted visible presence in communities. Targeted foot patrol, when implemented in combination with community engagement and problem-solving, can reduce crime and antisocial behaviour, reassure the public and improve their perceptions of the police. Random patrols and only responding to calls are unlikely to have the same effect’.

This is surely right. This was the guiding principle behind Labour’s reforms to policing led by David Blunkett and Hazel Blears during our previous period in office, and largely abandoned by the Tories. For example, the number of PCSOs was halved from 16,918 in 2010 to 8,750 in 2022. It is hard to mount visible foot patrols with invisible police officers.

Crime is rife, and people are scared and angry in equal measure. The Tories have ceded our high streets to criminality, and relinquished whatever claim they once had to be a party of law and order. Indeed, the Tories stand for disorder, lawlessness, and a criminal disregard for our communal safety and security.

This opens a huge political opportunity for Labour. Our man has dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice, and in Yvette Cooper we have a tough, experienced Shadow Home Secretary. As the election battle lines are drawn, just as in 1997, we need to campaign hard against antisocial behaviour, burglary, rape, knife crime, and looting from shops. We must put our toughness on crime and its causes into a modern setting.

Above all, we must rebuild and restore trust in the police, through reforms and recruitment, and visible neighbourhood policing, because without it, crime wins.

Paul Richards is the Labour & Co-operative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) in Sussex. Check out his previous piece, Circumstances change, but one stays the same – Labour still needs to win.