The Politicisation of Law-Enforcement 

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/5252.htm)

Politicians rush to appear to be tough on all crime, not just terrorism, “reflecting a political culture which is often tempted to dismiss research in favour of headlines”.[1]  Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York, won wide acclaim for reducing crime by introducing a policy of ‘zero tolerance’, though the relationship between cause and effect was unproven.[2] 

In an attempt to gain political approval, the British government introduced the ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Order’ (ASBO) in 1998 as a civil order to constrain people's behaviour when they “cause harassment, alarm or distress” to others.[3]  The ASBO has several apparent benefits, compared to using the full weight of the criminal law:

·      It places less of an administrative burden on the police.

·      It allows an almost instant implementation of legal sanctions.

·      It avoids overloading the courts (and the associated costs and delays).

·      It avoids the need for individuals to incur the costs of bringing an action under tort law. 

But there are arguments against the use of ASBOs:

·      They might be used too often and infringe the civil liberties of those people to whom they are applied, though they can be made subject to judicial review so that the courts can decide whether the right balance is being struck. 

·      Young people have started to treat ASBOs as a ‘badge of honour’ within their peer groups, so the sanction has become counterproductive.[4] 

·      There is also a wider issue, in that this legislation lowered the burden of proof required to apply legal penalties, and so can be regarded as extending the reach of the Legal Dimension.  It is questionable whether it was wise to extend the law in this way, because it took away people’s sense of communal responsibility.[5] 

On-the-spot fines have similar advantages to ASBOs, in avoiding delays and administrative costs, but they cannot be seen as a 'badge of honour'.  Used too freely, though, they constitute harassment[6] – and no-one except a court should be able to give someone a criminal record.

The media-fed public concern about crime has led to a political response of ever-increased law enforcement.  Pressure to achieve results has led to over-policing, including the widely disliked 'stop and search' technique.  This has led to increased racial tension in some areas and can therefore be regarded as somewhat counter-productive.[7]  The ratcheting up of policing will remorselessly be matched by increases in violence until a better approach is found.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] In October 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published a report by Anna Minton, entitled Why are fear and distrust spiralling in twenty-first century Britain?, which pointed out politicians’ tendency to “dismiss research in favour of headlines” (p. 11).  As a specific example, on p. 7, the Home Office’s own research noted that: “the extension of police stop-and-search powers is “a problematic response”, with “huge potential to create resentment”. Rather than responding to the evidence, Home Office Minister Tony McNulty dismissed the same criticisms from the Children’s Commissioner that stop-and-search powers would antagonise young people. Instead he said: “He [the Commissioner] is plumb wrong and miles away from where the public are.” So evidence-based research is ignored and policy is made on the basis of what is most likely to please a public misinformed by a media which is actively fuelling the culture of fear. The result is that the opportunity to develop specific, targeted policies towards the spike in youth murders is missed.”  The McNulty quotation was attributed to Richard Alleyne, in The Daily Telegraph, 27 May 2008.

The JRF report was available in May 2014 at http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/2282.pdf.

[2] Anna Minton’s comment on “zero tolerance” appeared in the same report, p.10.

[3] The Antisocial Behaviour Order is described in section 1 of the Crime & Disorder Act 1998, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/37/contents.

[4] Anna Minton commented on ASBOs, op. cit., p. 11.

[5] Tim Bateman, a policy adviser at Nacro, a charity that tries to cut such offending, said:

“There has been a shift in the expectation that anti-social behaviour would be handled in the community to an expectation that the state would deal with it”

This was published in an article It’s Back, published in The Economist, 3 Oct 2009, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/14558534.  The same article points out that:

“It remains to be seen if it is a good thing that responsibility for nuisance behaviour now lies with the central government. But it is clear that no party can now hand it back.”

[6] On 13 March 2013, the Manifesto Club published a report entitled Spot Fines: Pavement Injustice, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.manifestoclub.com/files/mc-report-pavement-injustice.pdf.  This report highlighted some of the risks of giving on-the-spot fines, including unfair targeting and giving people inappropriate criminal records.  There is clearly a need for people to have the right to appeal to a court if necessary.

[7] A BBC report on 20 May 2004, entitled Stop-and-search 'racism' must end, quoted a report by the Metropolitan Police Authority that concluded:

“The present practice has... created deeper racial tensions and antagonism against the police.

It has trampled on the rights of too many Londoners. It has cut off valuable sources of community information and criminal intelligence.”

The BBC report was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/3732169.stm.