The latest crime figures from the justice ministry for England and Wales make dismal reading — unless you happen to be a criminal. The number of people dealt with by the justice system fell by 2 per cent year on year in the 12 months to March, to 1.59m — the lowest since records were first collated in the 1970s. Prosecutions for the most serious offences fell by 8 per cent, even as police-reported cases of overall crimes rose by the same proportion.
After a decade of austerity, leading to a real-terms cut of almost one-fifth in central government funding for policing, the system is struggling to cope with the demands. British policing now faces a two-pronged challenge: rebuilding basic crime-fighting capabilities, and ensuring these are future-proofed against a rapid evolution in both the nature of crime and methods for combating it. Law enforcement means protecting Britons from both a new wave of older crimes and emergent threats.
Knife crime, which had declined after 2007, has been steadily rising since 2015. Central to the reversal is that fact that there are now 20,000 fewer police on the streets compared with 2010, while the number of arrests has halved in the past decade. The effects of cuts is heightened by an explosion of drug and gang-related violence.
Police forces are also going up against increasingly tech-savvy opponents online. Viruses targeting businesses, public bodies and even the police are becoming more common. Potential child exploitation has been discovered on sites such as YouTube.
Fraud, which is not even included in the justice ministry figures but saw an estimated 17 per cent rise in the past year, is increasingly sophisticated. New techniques allow criminals to intercept emails and alter payment details from legitimate senders.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise to boost police numbers by 20,000, strengthen police powers, and provide more prison places, is at least a start, not least in the battle to rebuild falling public confidence in law enforcement. An investigation in The Times last week found that calls to report fraud were outsourced to poorly-paid, badly-trained staff who did not reveal that many of their reports would not be looked at again. Few things erode faith more than a belief among citizens that the police are not interested in investigating the most common crimes.
UK law enforcement must also be adequately prepared to deal with more high-tech offences. Officers should receive the sorts of training and access to technology which can allow them to pursue prosecutions of digital felons who have often been able to operate with impunity. Funding for specialist police work such as forensic science will be vital as well. In May, a Lords committee warned that these services were at “breaking point”.
Greater co-operation — both with external partners and between forces — is also needed. In the case of knife crime, austerity cuts also affected mechanisms such as funding for youth services, which ensure links between local communities and the law. Teamwork between local police can counter cross-border crime and pool resources.
Crime prevention fundamentally relies on the fear of criminals that they will be caught. Mr Johnson, in his speeches billing himself as a law and order candidate, appears to have recognised this, calling for felons to be made “terrified” again.
More money is part of the answer, but this must be accompanied by a renewed commitment to tackling the everyday crime which is most people’s yardstick of police performance.