Tom Lees: Tories could pay the price for criminal record on supporting police

SURPRISED? Me neither. The recent revelations from Channel 4's Dispatches programme that police forces across the country have targets for the rate at which they ignore crimes will hardly surprise anyone.

Theresa May is accused of letting down police chiefs by political commentator Tom Lees.
Theresa May is accused of letting down police chiefs by political commentator Tom Lees.

I recently popped out for a few bits from our local Tesco. On the way into the store, a dishevelled man (in urgent need of a shower) was caught shoplifting a bottle of whisky by the eagle-eyed security chap.

What happened next was shocking. The wannabe-whisky-thief started to shout and scream at the top of his voice that he would “stab them”, “kill them” and then rooted around in his tracksuit bottoms for a knife. I immediately called 999. Asked for the police. Gave a full description of what was happening right in front of me. I told the person on the phone I would be happy to give a witness statement as the person shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

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Five minutes went by, then 10, then 30. Nobody came. They didn’t turn up at all! Clearly, this was one of the many reported crimes ignored by the police. After half an hour, the offender had long made off so I left my details with the store who said they would pass them on if the police ever made an appearance. I never got a call.

When did you last see a police officer on the beat?

When did you last see a police officer on the street? You are probably more likely to see a flying elephant in a pink dress.

I’ve just come back from the USA. The one thing that really stood out was actually seeing police on the streets. Not just one, but many. From New York, Washington DC and Charleston on the East Coast to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Portland on the West – each of these very different cities had visible police on the street. And it wasn’t just these big cities it was the small towns and villages in between too.

Is this just a question of money and numbers? Across Yorkshire, we have around one member of the police for every 280 people. London is a bit better with one for every 200. New York has even more, with one for every 160 people.

So is that the answer? Do we need more police? It is certainly part of it, but you would be foolish to think it is the only issue. In LA they have one member of the police for every 300 people and on the south coast on England in Sussex, they have one member of police staff for every 290 people. In Sussex they ignore half the number of reported crimes as West Yorkshire and in central LA you can’t walk more than 250 yards without seeing a cop. Don’t understand?

There seems to be a different attitude to crime fighting in the UK. Many places around the world take the completely reverse view on policing and follow a “broken windows” approach. This strategy believes cracking down on repeat petty criminals and enforcing the law for more minor offences like vandalism, graffiti and drunk and disorderly behaviour will then set the tone for society and reduce the crime rate for serious offending too.

It makes sense, right? If you live in an area where people can get away with smashing car windows or pickpocketing, why would they simply stop there? Children and adults always try and push boundaries to see what they can get away with. New York in the 80s and early 90s was famously a living hell. The streets were out of control. Crime rates were sky high and rising. Something needed to change. And fast. They adopted the broken windows approach and data analysis to spot crime spikes and take action. It worked, with crime rates now at a near record low.

People stereotypically voted Conservative because they are (supposedly) better at managing the economy and take law and order seriously while people voted Labour because of being (allegedly) more compassionate and giving more funding to public services and the NHS.

Under Theresa May, the Conservatives have abandoned one of their key electoral strengths. And while obsession with discussing Brexit fills the headlines, real issues like tackling crime are bubbling near to the surface.

The cuts to police numbers, and the absence of any visible policing, have eroded much of the electoral advantage the Conservatives used to have on crime and policing. Polling from YouGov now shows the importance of tackling crime tripling since 2016 ranks alongside the housing crisis. People feel less confident that Theresa May and the police have a grip on the issue.

If the Conservatives want to win a majority they need to be more than being the “not Jeremy Corbyn Party” and offer a vision of the country they want to create – which must include tackling rising crime and actually getting police back on the street. We need a return to seeing bobbies on the beat and people’s reports being taken seriously. If they fail, it will give the Labour Party a sharp arrow in their quill to launch squarely at the Conservatives’ increasingly shaky record which will move them one step closer to Number 10.

Tom Lees is a Yorkshire-based political commentator.