Peter Walker is a former Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police. He now owns SuperSkills, a Construction Training Business in Thirsk.
The announcement by Cressida Dick that she is tasking 120 police officers to the spate of homicides in London is welcome news – it is unacceptable for our capital city to be heading for 200 murders this year.The Commissioner is also right in saying the causes of the increase in violence are various. That may disappoint those who seek to make points about “austerity”, adopt the “I blame the parents” mentality, or criticise Theresa May for changing the police’s approach to stop and search.
It is rare indeed for complex problems to have a simple solution, but when the combination of a microphone and a politician are involved in debates about policing issues – especially in the run up to local elections – the temptation to reach for one single reason often becomes too much. This is why David Lammy, whose constituency has suffered so many of these tragedies, has become an outlier, criticising both the Government and the Mayor’s Office in equal measure, and calling for a far more comprehensive approach.
Responses to the problem of serious street violence from both the authorities and communities must be broad and long term. Additionally, the Commissioner’s announcement must not be seen as a “solution” to the present difficulty. It isn’t.
The deployment of 120 officers is a great tactical step – but, when a whole generation of young people are being affected by an issue, it may take a generation to see real and lasting results. Much has been made this week of the Violence Reduction Unit in Glasgow and the reduction of knife crime: no young people died as a result of such crimes last year.
The VRU was itself heavily reliant on police intervention during its first few years but, as greater impact of the work by others as part of a broad approach started to have effect, this has changed and police deployment has become less central to results as other initiatives involving health and education have started to have an impact.
But this is no “quick fix”. Last year’s results in Scotland were a credit to the hard work of all involved. They started that work in 2005. Similar references to the work of the New York Police Department in 1990s New York have also been seen as a “Golden Bullet”. The Times called for such an approach this week. “The answer, surely, lies in “zero tolerance”, a policy first popularised in New York City in the 1990s under the twin leadership of the mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and the police commissioner, Bill Bratton.” Once again, a process that took years to come to maturity.
I had the benefit of being sent to study the NYPD approach for Michael Howard when he was Home Secretary. There was much of merit – but the NYPD started from a completely different place than where the Met (or indeed any British police force) is now. Patrol Officers had been prohibited from arresting people for drugs, instead merely submitting intelligence reports. They did not investigate crime, but just “took reports”. Indeed, the most prominent posters on the walls of One Police Plaza (and everywhere else I went) declared Commissioner Bratton’s mantra – “We’re not just report takers – we’re the POLICE” in an effort to change the mindset of a hemmed in workforce.
Attendance at Compstat – the weekly round-up of what had happened in terms of crime – was mandatory for all command personnel as well as everyone else, from Housing to Highways. This resulted in all solutions being available, and a much more rounded set of data upon which to act. And it was this that became the most important lesson we took away: having all the agencies together, with all the data and a driving force from the Mayor’s Office reaped short-term rewards, repeated week after week after week and, eventually, this activity drew greater benefits as people knew that their communities were not ignored, that their problems were being reduced and that the authorities had become part of their society, rather than a distant and inactive bureaucracy.
Life is vastly different for young people in Tottenham and elsewhere today. But it is still the cas thate involvement with drug trafficking brings significant financial temptation to them. However, community revulsion at present events needs to translate into cooperation with the authorities for a real and long-term impact to be realised. And that takes will time, much as though leader writers may wish differently.
The crucial issue is breaking the cycle of young people becoming influenced (or coerced) by those gang members with whom they live cheek by jowl. Much of this goes unnoticed by authority – and there is little that can be done to prevent it.
It was whilst having that thought yesterday that one of its words stuck out in my mind – “Prevent”. We already have a programme, designed to identify people at risk of becoming radicalised. The accompanying approach, “Channel”, has been developed to counter the effects of radicalisation. And this is what we see happening to young people in London – especially to young black boys, as Iain Dale commented yesterday. The process that draws young people into gangs is exactly the same as that which draws others into terrorism. If the recruitment process is the same then, surely, identification and diversion methods can be the same as well.
Those approaches are there – all educators have been trained to identify (and mandated to respond to) any young people who appear to be in danger of radicalisation. The skills, the communication links, the relationships – they are all mature.
Clearly, it would be inappropriate to dilute the Prevent or Channel work – but perhaps amongst the many and various tactical solutions to the present difficulties being faced by communities in London in particular and other cities, a similar approach might present an opportunity to stop so many needless deaths and life-changing injuries.