Back in 2012 and 2013, I made two documentary films about the London Borough of Barnet in association with film director Charles Honderick. One of the things we did was interview two different Borough commanders of Barnet. Following that, I also had conversations with several other senior officers. On the record the police were happy to talk about the Borough of Barnet, the day to day policing and the crime stats. Off the record, they talked about far more wide ranging issues. They stressed that it is not the job of police to set Police policies. That is the job of politicians and governments. For that reason they were unwilling, on the record, to criticise the policies of the government of the day, but they were more than happy to give their personal opinion, on the basis that this was off the record.
A common theme that was mentioned was the effect cuts were having on outreach programs, community support work and youth work. I know a fair bit about the work the Police were doing and the work they were supporting. This video was shot at our studios in 2010 to support an anti Gun and Knife program. Mobo award winning artist Patrick Leacock lead a recording session at my studios where young people put together a recording and a video to spread the message that guns and knives are not the solution.
When I discussed this, all mentioned that Police budget cuts had meant that they could no longer afford to run these programs. The obvious question I asked was "what effect will this have?" The answer was chilling, although I didn't truly understand it at the time. One said "If these budget cuts are not reversed, then the links between the police and the community will be damaged, trust will be lost between young people and the local officers. We've spent years building up trust and mutual respect through hard work and if we lose this we will find ourselves standing at the edge of a precipice" He went on "As Police budgets are cut, we have to concentrate our resources on core policing. Programs and initiatives that work, but can't be statistically quantified in the short term will go. In five years time, all of the kids who are now eleven or twelve and just starting to venture out on the streets will have grown up in an environment where the police are only seen in difficult circumstances. There will be little trust. Policing works when it is supported by the community. If the community doesn't want to work with the police, then the whole system breaks down. If these cuts continue, we will be facing a very difficult situation in five years time".
And so here we are. Our government has sown the wind, now it is reaping the whirlwind. It seems that every day we awake to another tragic death on our streets. In January, Mill Hill saw a tragic death in the High Street. Three youths were involved in an incident where shopkeeper Vijay Patel died. Our local MP, Matthew Offord arranged a meeting and invited Borough Commander Simon Rose to speak and outline what the police were doing. The Borough Commander made what I believe was a diplomatic, but misleading statement. There had been a series of other violent crimes in Mill Hill. He stated that all were unrelated and the "spike" in such incidents were unrelated. In the strictest sense of the words, his statement was correct, but in a court of law you should give the Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth. Applying this test to what was happening, I believe that the Commander should have given a different answer. I believe he should have said "The Metropolitan Police have had eight years of budget cuts as a result of austerity, all of the youth programs and outreach work we were doing has been cut. As a result, we are seeing more youth crime and a breakdown of trust between marginalised young people and society in general. This can only lead to more crime in our society". Of course the Borough commander couldn't say that. It's not his job to be political or embarrass Mr Offord . It is not the job of the police to get involved in Politics. As such, the whole truth was not told.
There are two schools of thought on how policing and the criminal justice system should work. There is the viewpoint that the job of the police is to catch criminals and the job of the criminal justice system is to lock them up for as long as possible. The supporters of this view believe that it is not the job of the state to try and reform criminals and that the simple act of locking people up on long sentences will deter others. Then there is the view that the Police and the criminal justice system are just a part of a wider, integrated society. The Police should both work to prevent crime and catch criminals and the criminal justice system should try and reform those who it is possible to reform, whilst locking up those who are truly dangerous.
I subscribe to the second view. I have no trouble at all calling for rapists, murders and child molesters to be stuck in jail until they can't possibly harm anyone ever again. I am all for long sentences for such people. But when a fifteen year old is caught with a knife, I believe that the most counter productive thing you could give them for a first offence is a long sentence. A very good friend of mine developed a serious drug habit several years ago. He got caught up in a criminal gang and ended up serving 12 months of a three year sentence for a series of robberies of gaming machines at motorway service stations. He told me that when he went to prison, the first week was the worst. The first few nights when the door slams locked, the lights go off and you hear all manner of noises from other cells is truly scary. He said that after about a week you adjust. I asked him about what he thought. He suggested that unless people do something which indicates they are dangerous, he'd lock them up for a week on the first offence, then give them the option to defer the sentence at the end of the week. If they did it again, they'd serve their sentence in full plus the additional sentence for any subsequent crime. He said that as they emerge, they should be given all the support they need to reform. He told me that on his wing only a couple of other prisoners could read or write. Most couldn't function in the outside world. He hated prison, not having his girlfriend or other friends. He came out off drugs and reformed. Sadly he died a year later of cancer, but it was clear he'd changed. He said that the change had come after a couple of days. I asked if the year in prison had been what reformed him. His response was enlightening "The point at where I realised I had to change was when I was free of drugs and had time to contemplate what had happened. By the time I was three or four months in, the lesson had been learned. After six months, it was actually a struggle not to get back into drugs to counter the boredom, the prison was awash with them, but I just wanted to get out and get my head together". His view was that whilst people have substance issues they are unlikely to reform, as they will always have to gravitate to criminal networks. He also told me that many of the people in prison were building up their network to do things when they got out.
I have to conclude that from my discussions with the police and those on the receiving end of the justice system, we have got it wrong. I am not going to play the blame game. What we need is to start looking forward rather than back. Here is what I would like to see happen. I don't believe the costs of any of this would make anyone materially worse off. I believe that it would lead to a drop in insurance premiums in the medium to long term, which would offset any additional taxation costs. Here's my ten point plan.
1. Restore Police budgets and resume police outreach and community work.
2. Ensure all offenders and prisoners have proper access to drug rehabilitation programs.
3. Ensure all offenders and prisoners have proper mentoring and support to reintegrate into society.
4. Give young offenders early release with sentences deferred if no re offending.
5. Identify areas of gang activity and develop programs to address these (along the lines of the Glasgow project)
6. Set up an OFSTED like grading system for Local Councils for crime and environmental quality. If issues are not addressed, have the option of putting a council into special measures.
7. Legally protect budgets and give planning protection for youth clubs, football pitches, sports facilities, music studios, community halls etc.
8. Give tax breaks to companies to sponsor youth projects and local sports teams.
9. Make sure that every person with substance abuse issues has local facilities available to them to assist with solving their problems.
10. Include the number of people receiving a criminal conviction within three years of leaving a school in the schools OFSTED report and put those with high offending rates into special measures. Schools should also be marked down for exclusions, as these contribute to illiteracy, which is another cause of crime.
As I said at the start of this blog, the thought of losing a child terrifies me. My nephew saw a child knifed to death in the playground at Edgware School in 2005. I thought "What can I do personally?". The answer was that I supported a youth music scheme in Barnet for two years, I out in £10,000 towards the SoundSkool project that you see featured in the video above. It was hosted at my studio for three years. Then it stopped as we couldn't get any more funding to keep running it. It is now based in Enfield. It is clear that we need to get the community behind such projects. If you have any ideas for a project, I have a studio and I will support you as best I can. We can't abandon our children. We must do something.