BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 17.03.02

Film: Film on Conservative crime policy. Terry Dignan looks at the lessons the Conservatives are trying to learn from the way New York has reduced crime.

TERRY DIGNAN: On our streets day and night the police struggle to contain violent crime. Tony Blair promised to be tough on crime and its causes. Empty rhetoric, says Oliver Letwin. He says the answer is to revolutionise policing in this country. But he's been looking elsewhere to find out how. Oliver Letwin wants to rid the Tories of their traditional get tough, no nonsense image on law and order. Instead he talks of creating a neighbourly society where young people are kept off the conveyor belt of crime by learning the norms of civilised behaviour. Yet to achieve this he would import much of the American approach to law and order. Many in this country would find such a policy too tough to stomach even if they were prepared to find the money to pay for it. To see how American police - on and offshore - uphold the law, Oliver Letwin has been to New York. He's interested in neighbourhood policing. Like other American cities, New York has many more officers on patrol than we see in this country. Although Letwin believes they work more closely with communities, those who've studied US policing doubt the idea would work well here. PROFESSOR PETER WADDINGTON: The cop on the streets of the most lovely neighbourhood is going to find that many of the people in that area he doesn't know from Adam because he's never seen them before and will never see them again. So how is he going to be able to form this close relationship? And if he's in the difficult to police neighbourhood, they are not going to stay in that neighbourhood. They're going to be all over the place. So how is he going to keep tracks of them? DIGNAN: Yet Oliver Letwin favours US-style policing because he says it works. In New York in 1993 there were eighty six thousand robberies. Then came the introduction of zero tolerance - a crackdown on even minor offences - backed by a new form of community policing. By 2001 the number of robberies had fallen to twenty eight thousand. Meanwhile in London - with a similar sized population - the number of robberies had risen to forty one thousand. But New York's war on crime had to be paid for. The city currently has forty thousand, seven hundred and ten police officers. In London the Met has just twenty five thousand, three hundred and seventy four. Even Labour's planned rise in national policing levels won't even begin to make up the difference. So where would the Tories get the money from to fund an even bigger increase? DR BARRY IRVING: The decision, the political decision, to make sure that there were a huge number of officers available to be deployed on the streets of New York is obviously a seminal one as far as crime fighting in that city's concerned. We haven't got as many, they're more difficult to deploy, it's more difficult to decide where to put them and if considerable difference was to be made to the visibility of police on our streets the recruitment would have to be staggeringly high. ACTUALITY: "Turn around. Stop!" DIGNAN: Yet more cadets prepare to swell the ranks of the NYPD. But even this doesn't tell the whole story. They'll have six thousand more civilians than the Metropolitan Police to do routine administrative work. And they'll be assisted by an array of other law enforcement agencies. PROFESSOR WADDINGTON: Although it appears that the NYPD is substantially bigger than the Met - and it is - there are still yet more cops in New York who are from federal, municipal, specialist agencies and the rest. So it's vastly bigger and if you bring that figure over to New York then you're going to have a huge financial implication - you're talking about doubling the budget or more. DIGNAN: But Oliver Letwin says more policemen and women may not be needed. He argues existing officers could be used more effectively, out on the streets, getting to know their neighbourhood. Indeed in London in recent months hundreds of them have been re-deployed from traffic duties to tackle street crime. Oliver Letwin is being warned, however, that this policy carries with it great risks even though some senior Tories would like to see it applied throughout the country. LORD BAKER: For a police officer to be driving down a motorway chasing someone who's going over seventy miles an hour is I think rather a misuse of police time. I think if that job has to be done - it could be done by a uniformed force that were trained in those skills, not so highly professional as a police officer, and in fact that force could be funded by the fines that they levy on people who exceed the speed limit. DIGNAN: So, should the police stop going after speeding drivers. In the first week of re-deploying officers in London away from traffic duties, reported street crime fell by twelve per cent in the nine boroughs affected. But, it's argued, extending this policy to the rest of the UK would be extremely risky. PETER BOTTOMLEY: Three thousand three hundred people a year die on the roads and there are only about nine hundred homicides. So that if policing helps to save lives don't look on that as trivial. DR BARRIE IRVING: What you find is that traffic make an enormous contribution because in order to get anything together, a criminal gang or a solo operator, have to travel around. Traffic officers get to search cars. Traffic officers get to see people driving in unguarded moments. They are actually a vital link in the chain of criminal intelligence. Okay if you want to, pull them all off traffic and put them out on the streets, you will lose as much as you gain, in my view. ACTUALITY DIGNAN: So, is Oliver Letwin's answer to follow New York and recruit even more police than Labour plans? No doubt worried about public spending, he won't say. But he won't find it easy coming up with other ways of relieving pressure on the police. Apart from anything, the public may not like it. WADDINGTON: Most of the cop's time is not devoted to crime, it's devoted to the mess of urban living by and large - missing kids, domestic squabbles, people who have one emergency or another and these are, these can be enormously varied. But they take up a lot of police time and if you stop doing that and you say to the cops, 'no you're a crime fighting service' then who is going to tell Mrs Jones in the middle of the night when her fourteen year old son still hasn't come home, 'I'm sorry Mrs Jones he's not a crime problem - yet'. DIGNAN: With more police about, New York's Central Park is said to be safer. Labour hopes the idea of civilian Community Support Officers will similarly reassure people using public places in England and Wales. But Oliver Letwin opposes the plan, unlike a former Tory Home Secretary. LORD BAKER: I think, first, they could help the police enormously. They'd patrol with the police, particularly in housing estates, because they're dealing there with relatively small crimes and misdemeanors, but which are very troublesome to the community, youths make, doing graffiti on the walls, kicking a football up against the wall of some old person's house day in day out. Now that can be dealt with, I think, by a police officer together with a Community Support Officer. ACTUALITY: DIGNAN: In New York Oliver Letwin attended the monthly crime analysis for one area of the city. He learned just how much pressure local police chiefs are under to arrest lawbreakers in high crime neighbourhoods. In Britain some fear it could lead to heavy-handed policing and turn communities against the forces of law and order. WADDINGTON: There's going to be a great deal of emphasis on particular neighbourhoods and they are therefore going to suffer not only the problems of deprivation and criminal depredation, they're also going to suffer intense police suspicion and by and large people don't like that. DIGNAN: And nor may they welcome bigger tax bills if Letwin's crime fighting strategy requires substantial extra spending. Because copying America would require more money, not just for police, but for prisons too. Currently in England and Wales there are sixty-seven thousand people behind bars. In America the figure is a staggering one-point-nine million, which means for every hundred-thousand Americans, six-hundred-and-ninety-nine are incarcerated, compared to one-hundred-and-twenty-six in England and Wales. One Tory who knows a thing or two about running prisons, believes the courts already send too many to jail in this country. LORD BAKER: I think that the prison population now is at a record high and if it's going to go higher then certainly more prisons are going to be needed and certainly I started a prison-building programme, but I do believe there's quite a few people in prison for very, very light marginal offences who shouldn't be there and I think they should be released as soon as possible or even not sentenced. DIGNAN: Oliver Letwin says he would try to keep young people away from prison by getting them off the conveyor belt of crime. He would encourage more voluntary groups in high crime areas to help young people avoid offending. But groups already doing this work say it's not a cheap option and they'd like to know how the Tories would pay for such a policy. The charity Crime Concern runs activities for young people in deprived areas. Here in Southwark many families are from ethnic minority groups and like parents everywhere, they fear their children mixing in bad company if they're bored. Everyone at this project gets ten hours a week of fun and friendly advice. But this kind of work requires expertise that has to be paid for. NIGEL WHISKIN: To recruit, train and support a volunteer costs a minimum of nine hundred pounds a year, but if you want a really specialist volunteer, probably cost fifteen hundred. So you see there is a, there is a big resource implication and it, it isn't easy. We, every one of our volunteers has to be police checked, we have to follow a child protection legislation, we have to train our people up on health and safety at work legislation. DIGNAN: Tonight's activities on the Southwark project include MC-ing, mixing and DJ-ing. Labour plans to spend nearly three billion pounds on deprived areas where offending levels are way above the national average. Southwark is getting more than seventy million pounds. Not enough, some say. But they're doubtful Oliver Letwin would do any better. WHISKIN: I think our message to Oliver Letwin would be 'we like the sound of what you are saying, but the prize will only be won if he wins the battle for the level of resources that's needed to bring about the changes that must happen in our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.' It's a big chunk of dosh and somehow Mr Letwin's got to find that. DIGNAN: So if Oliver Letwin is to get young people off the conveyor belt of crime, match American policing levels and build more prisons, where's the money going to come from? As someone who came to prominence for being tough on spending, he may find it hard convincing voters he's really serious about being tough on crime.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.