What it means to be ‘tough on crime’

Poverty causes crime. People can argue about what constitutes ‘poverty’ or what it means for something to be a ‘cause of crime’, but it takes a special form of denial to pretend this powerful link is not there.

It helps, of course, to articulate the various ways in which poverty insidiously punishes those caught in its web. Toxic combinations of debt bondage, trauma-induced addictions, homelessness, unemployment and the welcoming hands of exploiters, frequently marry together to thrust good people into bad situations.

We, in the Police & Crime Commissioner’s Office, are not in the business of excusing crime. We’re in the business of understanding what causes crime and preventing it. This is why we have frequently warned of a crime wave arising from the cost of living crisis, characterised by desperation, not opportunism. It’s also why we called for a Future Generations Deal of guaranteed support to address our fears of mass youth unemployment as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns and economic collapse – a generation which has ambitions, promise and hope, but is left without navigation, while opportunity is excluded by a detracting economy.

Knowing what poverty can do, not least the profound stress caused by destitution and its connectivity to poor mental health and, at times, breaking-point criminal acts, we must ensure a detailed and coherent plan for tackling these obvious impacts. Preventing widescale poverty, whether through a government with the leadership and vision to stop excessive energy bill inflation or through targeted support for households in crisis, will reduce offending. The economic growth and social investment of New Labour’s time in government have effectively validated this approach. 

There is, however, another vital dimension to this social ill. Not only are the people committing crime usually victims of poverty and its poisonous spores, but so too are the consequential victims. Old and young people are living in communities besieged by antisocial behaviour – underestimate the impact of this at our peril. Women trapped in abusive homes, children exploited into criminal gangs often wrapped up with sexual abuse, and desperate families stuck in a loan shark’s clasp. The poorest are the most victimised, and it is a crushing injustice. The compassionate approach we must take to prevent crime and reoffending does not offer sufficient solace to those on the bruising end of criminality.

Calls for defunding the police do not make sense in a world where domestic abuse is rife. As well as progressive efforts to prevent crime, we need more police officers too, in the areas that need them most. Discomfort with having more police officers patrolling poorer estates offers nothing to the families and individuals frightened to go in and out of their homes for fear of violence, abuse and general lawlessness in their communities. Ignore the plight of people or imagine a police response is not needed in the ‘here and now’, and we will have played our part in the failure to maintain security for those living in dire need.

The police must uphold the highest standards, which means no use of unnecessary force, no racism, no misogyny, and nothing else that breaches the expectations of an advanced and respectful democracy. While working constantly to ensure, develop and maintain those standards, we must never pretend that, in a moment of crisis, violence or intimidation, we do not need a quick and urgent response that is prepared to take robust action. Those adults using children to deal crack are not our friends. It may well be that that their future offending is best stopped through a deep understanding of the causes of their crime and genuine efforts to rehabilitate, but today, right now, we need a tough police response to bring people to safety. No one is talking about unnecessary force, but police force is sometimes an unpleasant reality in a world where guns are hidden on bedroom shelves.

So many of the crimes affecting society can be avoided. With long-term investment in education, youth services, support for families in crisis, harm and misery are avoidable. Create economic opportunities and do what we can to prevent poverty in tough times, and this job is made even easier. Further still, let’s not pretend that throwing people in jail for low level offending actually works – in fact, it makes the addictions, poor mental health and poverty that led them there far worse. Until then though, and until we have a government that sees through a long-term lens, we must not be scared of being tough on crime. The police are needed, and sometimes they need to protect people from real and imminent danger – this reality should not be belittled in our quest for a more progressive approach to preventing crime in the first place.

Tom McNeil, Assistant Police & Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: