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As Tories and the press panic about a ‘law and order breakdown’ – fear cops, not crime

This article is over 4 years, 6 months old
After Tory scaremongering and promises of a ‘crackdown’ on crime, Sadie Robinson looks at the truth behind the fear—and why we don’t need more cops
Issue 2668
Peckham Pride—a protest about immigration raids and deportations in 2017 faced heavy policing
Peckham Pride—a protest about immigration raids and deportations in 2017 faced heavy policing (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Is crime getting worse?

Tory promises for a “crackdown” on crime are based on lies and fearmongering. They want us to believe that violent crime is on the rise, and that it’s unsafe on the streets, so that Boris Johnson can promise 20,000 more cops to make Britain safer.

But what’s really happening? Police figures don’t show a true picture of crime. Lots of crimes aren’t reported—and cops dismiss some as “no crime”.

Forces can change how they record crimes or throw resources into a particular area, skewing the figures. Other statistics are misleading because they don’t show what they appear to measure.

For instance, police recorded an 8 percent rise in offences involving a knife or sharp instrument in the year to September 2018. But this doesn’t necessarily show an 8 percent rise in knife attacks.

As the Office for National Statistics (ONS) pointed out, “The weapon does not have to have been used in the offence, only present, for it to be flagged.”

The Crime Survey for England and Wales asks people about their experiences and perceptions of crime. This is seen as giving a more reliable picture.

Its latest survey covered the 12 months to December last year. It said 2018 saw “no significant change” in crime levels, following “continued falls in overall levels of crime” in recent decades.

The survey found a rise in theft and in offences involving knives, and a fall in crimes involving firearms. Here again, figures can give a wrong impression of what’s actually happening.

For instance, many would assume that “firearms” means guns. But the survey counts “imitation weapons—CS gas, pepper spray and stun guns and unidentified weapons” as firearms too.

Similarly, a rise in “gun deaths” doesn’t necessarily mean more people are shooting each other.

In the US nearly 40,000 people died as a result of shooting in 2017 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was the highest rate in over 20 years, and much media attention was given to a small number of horrific mass shootings.

Yet around 60 percent of gun deaths resulted from people taking their own lives. These deaths didn’t make headlines.

The media makes gun and knife crime appear more widespread than it is. Crimes involving knives and guns remain very rare.

In the 12 months to March 2018, 79 percent of violent incidents in England and Wales involved no weapons, according to the ONS.

What causes crime?

Individual crimes have different causes, but all have social roots.

Crime rates are strongly linked to the economy. During the depression of the 1930s, crime rates soared. But during the 1950s, when capitalism was booming, they fell every year.

The crimes of the rich and powerful often go unpunished—even high-profile scandals involving sexual abuse or tax evasion. Many crimes higher up in society are ignored or not treated as crimes at all.

So when people talk about “crime” they usually mean the crimes of ordinary people. Some see crime as caused by a deviant “underclass”. But crime isn’t limited to a certain “type” of person—it’s rooted in how society shapes people’s lives.

Boris Johnson and his media backers are encouraging a panic about crime

Boris Johnson and his media backers are encouraging a panic about crime

Poverty, unemployment and alienation cause immense pressures. They can put relationships under strain and cause people to lash out at each other.

When people feel desperate, a small number turn to crime. Crime rates have risen in areas where industries have been devastated. Unemployment and attacks on benefits leave some people with no legal way of getting money.

Capitalism pushes us to constantly buy stuff, and we are encouraged to see our worth in terms of what we possess. Young people worry if they don’t wear the right clothes or have the right trainers. It isn’t surprising that some people commit crimes to get the stuff they are told they need.

The effects of poverty can wreck mental health, and push people towards using alcohol and drugs.

These things make people more likely to be victims of crime and create situations where crimes are more likely.

Vulnerable or oppressed people are more likely to be written off, targeted by the cops and criminalised. Most people in Britain’s prisons were excluded from school.

Over a quarter of the prison population is from a minority ethnic group. And eight out of ten women in prison and seven in ten men said they have mental health issues.

The inequality and brutality of capitalism creates crime and criminals. Poor and working class people are disproportionately the victims.

What about violent crime?

Dominant explanations for violent crime tend to blame individuals. The absence of a “father figure” or “bad parenting” is said to lead to young people attacking others. Other explanations focus on music or video games.

All push stereotypes about how people live, and then blame these “feckless” lifestyles for crime. And they usually single out black people.

The worst imply that certain groups are predisposed to violence or criminality. Yet crime and violence occur in all classes and among people of different backgrounds.

Politicians portray violence as a threat to their so-called civilised world. But violence doesn’t exist at the fringes of a peaceful society—it is at the heart of capitalism.

Imperialist powers built empires by fighting bloody wars and then repressing colonised people. States use violence against ordinary people at home too.

Over the past two years, the “War on Terror” saw politicians and the media in Britain step up their glorification of the army and the soldiers that invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was also an excuse to arm more cops, and give them more powers to spy on ordinary people.

Capitalism has driven people into more and more violent situations.

The system encourages us to compete against each other. Our rulers push racism, sexism and homophobia, encouraging the idea that some people are better than others.

Their rhetoric can give confidence to reactionaries by legitimising their rotten ideas.

All of this shapes individual behaviour.

Capitalism has always been marked by violence and crime—and by panics about it. In 1863 one commentator lamented, “Once more the streets of London are unsafe by day and night.”

Revolutionaries described how capitalism breeds violence from the early days of the system.

The revolutionary Frederick Engels wrote in 1844, “Present day society, which breeds hostility between the individual and everyone else, produces a social war of all against all, which inevitably in individual cases assumes a brutal form—crime.”

Do we need more cops and prisons?

Between March 2010 and March last year, police forces in England and Wales lost 21,732 cops, Home Office figures show.

The cuts didn’t lead to a surge in crime. There were “continued falls in overall levels of crime” over the same period.

There is no link between the rate of imprisonment and recorded crime, according to National Audit Office figures. Prison doesn’t “rehabilitate” people either—it leaves people isolated, damaged, excluded and angry.

It’s harder to get work if you have been in jail, and prisoners often come out with nowhere to live. Prison just makes it harder for people to escape crime.

More cops and more prisons do not stop crime because crime is rooted in the system.

The Tories plan to tackle knife crime with ads on fried chicken boxes

The Tories plan to tackle knife crime with ads on fried chicken boxes

Yet it can seem that, even if they aren’t a solution, we still need cops. After all, fewer police means fewer people to investigate terrible crimes such as sexual abuse or racist murders.

This rests on a wrong view of what the cops actually do. Even top cops admit that most of their time is not spent fighting crime.

In 2014 David Crompton, then chief constable of the disgraced South Yorkshire Police, said, “Less than a quarter of what we deal with is crime.”

A 2015 report by the College of Policing found, “Non-crime incidents account for 84 percent of all command and control calls.”

Crompton blamed cuts to other services, claiming that police were doing jobs that should have been done elsewhere.

But the real reason why cops don’t spend time fighting crime is that it isn’t their job. Police are not there to protect ordinary people from crime. They are there to prop up a system that does serious harm to ordinary people.

A lot of what they do is about control and intimidation of ordinary people on the street. Policing the crowds at Notting Hill Carnival, for example, or at a football match or demonstration.

Harassing homeless people, or young people who gather in public—or just simply being visible—is about bolstering the law and order of a system that exploits ordinary people.

The police were formed to clamp down on working class resistance and protect the rich. They still play this role today. It shapes how they operate and their ideas. So, working class people are regularly treated as dangerous or worthless. Numerous child sexual exploitation scandals have shown that police treated victims as the criminals. Police routinely harass young black men on the streets.

Ever more police powers give the state more weapons to use against ordinary people.

What’s the real solution?

More repressive measures are likely to generate more frustration and anger, and more crime. But other measures could make crimes less likely.

Some groups are more likely to be victims of crime than others. The state could direct resources into more support for these groups to make them less vulnerable.

For instance, it could take serious measures to tackle homelessness. It could fund support services for people with addictions and mental health problems. It could stop treating women who work as prostitutes as criminals, making it easier for them to report crimes.

It could stop cutting staff in public places such as London Underground and parks, which has led to rises in crimes.

Above all it could stop sacking people and cutting benefits, give everyone a decent home, end school exclusions, and raise wages.

But under capitalism the priority is not providing for the majority and meeting the needs of everyone. It’s helping a tiny minority make profits, by whatever means necessary.

Our rulers who condemn violence are hypocrites. For them certain violence—such as police repression—is acceptable, at least in certain circumstances. But “violence” that poses a threat to their system is not.

And crimes committed by some people—the rich, the bosses, the cops—are treated differently to those carried out by ordinary people.

A socialist society wouldn’t end disagreements, illness or unhappiness. But it would take away the material roots of many crimes while giving ordinary people more fulfilling lives.

We can’t stop crime under capitalism. It glorifies violence and division, while making ordinary people’s lives a misery. Ultimately, tackling violence and crime means getting rid of a violent, criminal system that keeps the majority of people down.

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