Police are responding to a perplexing crime mystery. Since the mid-1990s, there have been sustained reductions in crime, and these have continued despite the onset of austerity. It is a trend running counter to Home Office modeling, based upon long-term historical data, that confidently asserted crime would increase in a recession.
A complex set of social, political, economic and technological factors have all contributed to this crime drop. But as the effects of austerity “bite” and police budgets are cut, there is a need to find more efficient ways of managing crime. Contrary to the austerity mantra of “doing more with less” often cited by senior police officers, this involves police “doing less with more”—intervening less often in social life, but with greater impact. At its best, this means anticipating problems and preventing them from happening in the first place.
Against this backdrop Tom Winsor, the new Chief Inspector of Constabulary, used a recent speech to urge police to do more preventing of crime and less reacting to it. The newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners are also investing significantly in crime prevention. In policing and criminal justice policy, prevention is clearly where the action is. Why is this happening now, and how should police respond to this “preventative turn”?
The answer to the first question has much to do with the shrinking police budget. Reacting to crime after it has happened has become the default mode of policing. Chasing bad guys, detecting crime and catching criminals—“reactive policing”—offers a seductive vision of police work. It provides police officers with a clarity of mission, and police managers with an activity that is relatively easy to measure. Preventing crime, either before it happens or at an early stage, is less dramatic and more difficult to measure in terms of success. But if you can get it right, it is considerably more cost effective.
Modern policing organisations are already doing more and more preventative work. Domestic violence and child protection are two areas where this has happened, with regular Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences involving police and other agencies sharing data on troubled individuals and families. Likewise, counter-terrorism policing has been transformed by the Preventing Violent Extremism agenda. These all attempt to spot “signals” of vulnerability…