Theory meets reality meets bureaucracy

Last month this blog highlighted an article by Times columnist Libby Purves about late night policing in Ipswich and pointed out the lack of formal sanctions she saw being used while spending a shift with officers dealing mainly with pub and club goers. In particular, the following passage demonstrated the light touch policing method employed:
I question PC Rafferty about his interpretation of “drunk and disorderly”, since one in five of those around us is now, in my view, disorderly. If there were any peace they would be breaching it. He laughs: “Drunk and hopeless.” There aren’t enough cells, or time for the paperwork. The police merely contain the bingers, keep them friendly. By and large it works.
I then asked whether this did in fact ‘work’, and questioned if merely managing or containing drunken and disorderly behaviour was preferable to a more comprehensive solution.Another Times article a few days later by Anjana Ahuja outlined evidence from experiments which help confirm the ‘broken windows’ theory – that tolerating minor wrongdoing results in more serious crime and disorder. One of the experiments conducted was outlined thus:
Dr Keizer’s team left an envelope hanging out of a postbox; the stamped and addressed envelope had a window through which could clearly be seen a five-euro note. How would passers-by, or those posting a letter, react when they saw it? The vast majority (87 per cent) either left it alone, or pushed it into the postbox. Only 13 per cent took it away (this was regarded as stealing).

But roughing up the environment had a dramatic effect. When the postbox was tagged with graffiti, 27 per cent of people stole the letter. When the postbox was surrounded by rubbish (but not graffitied), 25 per cent pocketed the cash.

The academics, who reported their startling results last month in Science, suggest that disorder does indeed beget disorder; when one social or legal norm is obviously violated, we are tempted to loosen our grip on others.
The broken windows theory forms the basis for zero tolerance policing. But, as the experience of policing in Ipswich demonstrates, the reality on the ground is arguably nearer to zero enforcement than the more robust approach required by the science, which in turn perhaps provides some insight into why the UK has such a self-evident law and order problem.

Another important facet of this debate is how out of touch the powers that be – desk-bound senior police officers, politicians, councillors and public servants – are with what happens at the sharp end of policing, and the implications this has for policy-making. Yet another recent Times article provides some evidence relating to this. In a piece about drugs legislation and enforcement, Andy Hayman, an ex-assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, argues that the reclassification of cannabis and ecstasy will make little difference to policing on the ground. In relation to the bureaucracy he says:
I used to serve on the [Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs] in my capacity as the leading police officer on drugs policy. By the end of my stint I felt that its detachment from grassroots reality had eroded its credibility. Its purpose seemed to be to generate endless rounds of meetings and glossy reports to send to ministers.

Up to 70 members – made up of representatives from all sorts of government and voluntary bodies – attended the unwieldy full meetings, which were supported by a plethora of smaller working groups and sub-committees. I was always struck by how the experience of those living in the thick of the drugs problem got lost among the grey suits having highbrow technical and medical discussions.
As regards enforcement and prosecution:
The council would be horrified to learn that its recommendations on drugs classification are not taken seriously. But that is the case. The public either don’t understand the process or are not interested in it. For the police, the advisory council is a sideshow; officers prefer to apply their professional discretion on whether to caution or arrest suspects.

Put bluntly, how a drug is classified doesn’t help police officers in their day-to-day duties. The first thought of an officer confronted by a user of an illegal drug is to weigh up whether the possession warrants anything more than a caution. To make an arrest and charge doesn’t guarantee a prosecution so it may be simpler to deal with it on the street. That decision is made regardless of the classification of the drug involved.

For the courts, categorising a drug does help to provide a tariff for punishment. But even that idea has become dated as the Crown Prosecution Service now tends to apply its own prosecution guidelines. In practice, the classification of a drug does not significantly change how the courts or police deal with drug offenders.
Of course, these examples are a mere microcosm of the bigger problem, but extrapolate them to policing and crime generally – not to mention the even bigger picture of government and the public services – and the implications are surely self-evident.
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Planet Politics is about disillusionment with the political process.
Planet Politics has absolutely no links to any political party, pressure group or the press, and is best described as anti-politics rather than non-aligned.

Source: planet– Feb 2009

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