Visible vs Invisible Policing: How do we reduce criminality?

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By Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay
Professor of Economics
Director of Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing

Rhetoric and soundbites from politicians are par for the course, so we should not be surprised to hear the new Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, comment that she wants “criminals to literally feel terror” at the thought of committing offences.

The statement is not particularly meaningful, but it does make her sound tough on crime. The statement was made in an interview following the new Prime Minister’s pledge to recruit over 20,000 officers, with the suggestion that more ‘bobbies on the beat’ will deter criminals. While there may be some generalised deterrent, some of the most serious crimes are hidden crimes, whether it be the domestic violence that happens behind closed doors or a hacker planning online bank fraud.

It is hard to see how more visible policing will deter such crime, let alone strike terror in criminals. If anything, it may even take away the focus on the much harder to detect hidden harm, including terror plots, which have few visible signs.

Is there a correlation between police and knife crime?

Some may argue that the Home Secretary was referring mainly to violence related to knife crime, and her hope is that people will feel terrified to commit such crime because of increased police presence. Again, there may be some marginal deterrence but it is far from clear that police presence will stop knife crime and the evidence on stop and search is patchy to say the least. It also makes no attempt to understand the root causes of any type of crime. In terms of policy, this suggests (though one hopes not) that the public health approach to knife crime, which has shown so much promise in Scotland, may not be given serious attention by the government.

The Home Secretary’s comment also raises some basic issues about how political discourse appears to be totally disconnected with evidence-based policy making. This disconnect is worrying because we need to spend money wisely – in this context, we need to assess whether 20,000 more officers are required, or whether we instead, for instance, need funds to develop technology that allows us to identify emerging threats.

The police and our community

Another linked issue is that the fight against crime must involve the community helping the police detect hidden harm, whether it be an emerging terror plot, or violence and exploitation of children.

Rhetoric on hoping to make criminals feel terror will not solve any problems in the criminal justice system and may signal a policing model that does not try to understand the causes of criminality or work with the community to intervene early.

We need such co-operation to uncover the more harmful crimes that we do not see. More than ever, the vision of ‘policing by consent’ is not just a tradition of British policing, it remains an effective model to work with the community to keep the country safe.

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