'I NEEDED a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.' Thus Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's private eye, in Farewell, My Lovely . Chandler's Bay City is admittedly a bit different from, say, Newport Pagnell. Still, the revelation that, confronted with a crime, the modern English policeman's weapon of choice is the photocopier, closely followed by the Biro, black, and forms, for the filling in of, is a graphic indicator of just how far removed today's law has become from the mean streets where crime actually happens and whose inhabitants suffer it.
Along with a cast of local no-hopers and lowlife, office stationery features largely in Wasting Police Time, an entertaining and sobering account of one direct-response (ie local beat) policeman's experience of life on the front line in 'Newtown', a settlement of 60,000 somewhere in the north of England.
In this account, an outgrowth from the pseudonymous PC David Copperfield's seditious blog (http://coppersblog.blogspot.com), the ordinary policeman's lot is not a happy one (although there is sardonic and surreal humour aplenty). However, the main hazards in his life are not violence and organised crime, but police management - proliferating bureaucracy and the ranks of internal and external auditors who seem more interested in whether targets are met and procedures complied with than catching criminals.
Thus, one day Copperfield finds himself the single uniformed response officer for the whole town, in a station otherwise full of office-based specialists, task forces and community support officers ('a government idea that ensures a cheap, uniformed alternative to police officers on the street, while allowing police officers themselves to get on with writing reports, filing and stapling') - a not very terrifying prospect for even the fairly incompetent villains of Newtown. Needless to say, staffing is scheduled by computer.
But even when he gets out on the streets, he doesn't stay there long. As the individual officer's margin of discretion is eroded, more and more must be recorded for subsequent audit. Just talking to a couple of loitering youths must be noted and later entered into the computer. A straightforward arrest for vandalism takes an entire shift of longhand form-filling, leaving just half an hour for 'policing'. As Copperfield notes, the system makes the administration of crime more important than reducing or solving it. 'Greater numbers of police are not the answer to rising crime,' he writes. 'There are enough policemen, it's just that they are all sat behind desks.'
Some of what he does is strictly pointless - like interviewing witnesses for cases that have already been settled. This nonsense is the nightmare byproduct of diminishing discretion crossed with detection-rate targets. Under national crime reporting standards, every complaint, from a fight in a school playground to a murder, must be recorded as a crime. That means it has to be investigated and solved. The result is straightforward: to keep detection rates up, forces solve easy cases.
'Detecting' the playground scrap, which in the past would have been dealt with by a ticking off, is a simple matter of getting one party to admit to hitting the other, with the promise of no further action taken. Better: get the other party to admit a thump too, even though no charges will be brought, and that's two detected crimes. 'Cleverer still, what if, during their scuffle, someone's bag got knocked on to the ground and the handle was broken? I don't know about you, but that sounds very much like criminal damage to me. Now you're talking! THREE detected crimes!'
Naturally, all this has unintended consequences elsewhere in the system. One casualty, as in all target regimes, is police crime figures, many of which are meaningless. But there are individual tragedies, too. As Professor Rod Morgan, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, noted on Newsnight last week, police get no points for brokering commonsense solutions, but they do for 'bringing people to justice'. So they do, with the result that too many youngsters have criminal records for trivial offences, the system is clogged - and police officers spend time writing up cases that will never come to court or have already been filed.
Even allowing for a bit of exaggeration, the picture Copperfield paints is not reassuring. Yes, he says, people may overestimate the incidence of crime, but they overestimate far more the number of coppers on the street. In any case, why should we expect the police to be different from the rest of the public sector, where target bureaucracy and top-down management sap front-line energy in the same way? In a black aside, Copperfield remarks that rather than trust the soothing official line, he'd rather have 'a gun and a few acres and I'll take care of myself, if it's all the same to you'. Maybe Bay City isn't so far away after all.
The Observer, 19 December 2006