Police Cuts and Mob Rule on UK Streets

Completely unrealistic image of two policemen in the same place at the same time, by Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

UK policing has been cut so severely that citizens are resorting to vigilantism to solve and punish crime — it can only end badly. One might say that it has already ended badly given the police aren’t able to protect us properly. Until recently, there was a perception that if you even acted in self-defence against a criminal, you would get into trouble. But now, things are even less clear. Reductions in officer numbers mean that many crimes don’t even get the police attending.

Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the UK has lost 21,000 police officers, and funding has reduced by 19%. Meanwhile, there has been a significant increase in the worst types of violent crime — homicides, muggings, burglaries, rapes and knife crimes. Interestingly, overall violent crime hasn’t increased — but the police are recording way more of the most serious incidents. Police-recorded violent crime is up around 20% in just the last year, and has been increasing steadily since 2013.

There is debate over whether crime is really rising, or if the police are getting better at recording it, and the truth is that it’s a little bit of both. Trends in UK crime are measured using the Crime Survey for England & Wales (CSEW) and police recorded figures. The police figures, obviously, only count crimes reported to the police. But the CSEW gives a better impression of the actual overall crime rate, as it considers crimes that weren’t reported — although it is actually a worse indicator of the violent crime rate.

Comparing the results of CSEW and police recorded crime, we can see that overall, crime is falling. But the worst violent crimes are on the increase. How do we know those figures are accurate? Mostly from hospital admissions or police attending the crime scene. Victims of these offences typically come to the attention of emergency services because they have no say in the matter. You can walk away from a slap, but not from a gunshot wound.

In July 2018, residents of Atherton became so frustrated with the persistent efforts of one burglar and the police’s inability to do anything about it, that they chose to apprehend him themselves. Everyone knew who it was, so they assembled a mob, turned up at his house, and beat the living shit out of him (and got their stuff back).

The burglar was arrested two months later, and it’s unclear whether any charges were brought against the people he’d burgled. But this could have gone horribly wrong. What if they’d killed him? Or got the wrong person? It was not a trivial scuffle; the burglar was stabbed and had six fingers broken in the stand-off. These people were willing to commit serious violence to enact justice that the state wasn’t providing.

Hartlepool has lost 500 police officers since 2010, and has seen a recent surge in crimes like burglary. Police numbers are so low that officers cannot attend minor crimes, and even in cases with clear evidence they are not processing them — so nothing was done about it. Local residents have set up night-time patrols to do the job that police officers are unable to do, scouring the streets for would-be criminals.

So far they have captured CCTV images and reported criminals they’ve encountered to the police, being careful to not resort to violence, but the situation is far from ideal. Hartlepool is a large town with high levels of poverty, and it really needs a proper police service. There’s a risk that these night-time patrols are indistinguishable from gangs of violent criminals, which could increase fear and lead to dangerous confrontations. There is no regulation of these citizens’ activities.

Last month a Syrian refugee was bullied and beaten by some of the other pupils at his school. It was recorded on a mobile phone, and was uploaded to social media last night (27th Nov). This is following months of bullying that the school and local police allegedly did nothing about. Within the 24 hours since the footage was posted on Twitter, the main bully was identified, arrested, and charged. But it’s not that simple.

There are risks associated with sharing footage and details of the crime on social media. As I’ve written about previously, this can jeopardise a court case, and it can be against the law. Additionally, reporting restrictions prevent the identification of suspects aged under 18 — yet the perpetrator was not only named, but details of their school & home address were shared online, resulting in death threats and a mob turning up outside their house. The family are believed to have been moved to another area for their safety.

The attacks on this child and his younger sister had been going on for months and nothing had been done about it. The boy had a broken arm from a previous attack, and his sister tried to kill herself on school premises due to sustained racist bullying. This is incredibly serious and yet it was allowed to continue, with action being taken only when people took matters into their own hands and posted the video of a horrific assault online. If justice isn’t served until one kicks up a fuss, then people are going to make hell for the authorities — which will cost even more to put right.

Earlier this year, the UK’s first private police force started patrols in a wealthy London suburb. London is one of the areas hit hardest by cuts to the police service, and wealthy residents acted by paying for someone else to do it. I suppose it’s better than rounding up some of one’s neighbours to mete out punishments, but it is a worrying step. The company has plans to expand to other cities, leading to a two-tier police service and a legal grey area. As I’ve mentioned in another article, we are still paying the same amount of tax as we were before ‘austerity’ measures, so where is all the money going?

We know that overall crime rates are steady. But the most serious offences are on the increase and they’re not being dealt with effectively. In general, the police have become better at recording crime, and apprehending criminals. But at the same time, violent crime is demonstrably on the increase, so their limited resources are stretched even further. Many forces are unable to process minor crimes, and they’re not even keeping up with the more serious ones.

Politicians have denied that there is a problem, but the evidence says otherwise. Residents are taking charge of the situation, either by purchasing a service that used to be standard, or by assembling vigilante gangs to “have a quiet word with” troublemakers — potentially / probably committing crimes themselves in dealing with that which the actual police cannot. It’s not like the local goons are going to get nicked themselves — there’s no police around to do anything about them.

All of the cases mentioned here have been the result of local frustrations and police inaction. But it’s not the fault of the police; central government has slashed funding, leading to a reduced service. Thousands of officers have lost their jobs, and police stations all over the country have shut down. It should never have gotten this far — the UK is the fifth richest country in the world (for now), and we have expectations about what a decent society should look like. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable to have vigilantes patrolling our streets — in fact, people would most likely have called the police on them.

It’s scary, but it’s also sad, and entirely predictable. If you do policing on the cheap, you’ll get what you pay for. We’re already seeing mob rule in some places, and police patrols as a luxury for the rich in others. Violent crime is rising, and it’s a matter of time before someone (else) gets seriously harmed, or killed. And when they do, no-one will be there to do anything about it.