Governing through crime has been a huge part of the political agenda since the Thatcher government of the 1980s. Drives to appease the idea of popular punitivism have influenced an array of social policies which have become focused on how to reduce criminal behaviour rather than social welfarism, rehabilitation and care. Last week, at a fantastic lecture by David Garland, he referred to such short termism as gestural, symbolic and with limited thought about longer term negative consequences.
Examples of this range from environmental changes via housing policies aimed at ‘designing out crime’ to criminologists being employed in more ‘administrative’ roles to research areas of what works in reducing crime rather than understanding the social causes of it. Such political change has been referred to by a number of criminologists as the criminalisation of social policy. Governments have been more concerned with managing crime rather than attempting to understand what causes it.
I recently attended a conference in Amsterdam about the combining of law enforcement and public health agencies. A number of international practitioners and academics laid out the long term impact of such policy changes. The fundamental shift from an ideology of welfarism to neo-liberalism and individual responsibility has increased the number of people with different forms of mental illness and addictions becoming involved in crime as both victims and offenders. The cut backs to health provision, social workers and youth workers has meant that those in most need of social care are left with limited support and therefore are extremely vulnerable.
There seems to be no shortage of news – both in the national press and on social media – about the issues arising for, and affecting, the police when it comes to dealing with individuals with such issues. The most recent perhaps being the news that young people are being sectioned under the Mental Health Act and subsequently being bought into custody as a place of ‘safety’.
Juxtaposed with this, it seems, is the current debate about the future role of policing and the issue of how wide or narrow the police remit should be. Theresa May seems to consider the crime fighter role as the core of professionalism for officers despite the reams of research that highlights how that is actually little of what the police actually do with their time.
Whilst I am a huge advocate of the College of Policing, the ‘what works centre’ currently feeds the crime prevention rhetoric within policing. There is limited evidence of what might be available for officers, based on knowledge, to assist with the other non-crime elements of the role.
Despite this, we increasingly see the police criticised for not providing an effective social service function and not having the adequate training to deal with the spin off from a history of social policy, which has ultimately resulted in the policification of crime control.
If the police are to have a wider remit, the breadth of issues that they deal with needs to be recognised more formally. Whether this comes about via a Royal Commission or a less formal method there surely needs to be some recognition about the wider issues regarding public health and how this is impacting on the criminal justice sphere and its workers.
Maurice Punch recently stated that neo liberalistic agendas have dismantled the welfare system leaving the police in the middle of dealing with the fall out as the core agents of crime and social control. There has to be a sense of reason about the police not having the capacity or perhaps capability to deal with the long term fall out of this alone.
This debate should be so much deeper than being simply a conversation about (re)investment, in particular agencies to assist in dealing with criminal behaviour more holistically and proactively. What is also required is a conversation about what the future remit of the police is, what a future ‘professional’ service looks like is and what research and evidence we will need to facilitate officers meeting this change.