London's hysteria

Print edition : March 02, 2002

A series of bizarre happenings has embarrassed Britain's police force that had been traditionally cited as the epitome of efficiency. A look at the thinking and approach and action in this context.

"LONDON needs a Giuliani," screamed the Daily Telegraph editorially a few days ago. This was not just to greet the arrival of the former New York Mayor in London a few weeks ago to receive an honorary knighthood from the Queen. The distinction is said to have been conferred on him for both his post-September 11 leadership and his widely acclaimed success in restoring street safety in New York. The London press is emphatic that this great metropolis is fast slipping into anarchy because of rising street crime and that only Giuliani's 'zero tolerance policing' will succeed in re-establishing public confidence in the Metropolitan Police (Met).

Interestingly, the escalating fear of crime contradicts the findings of the British Crime Survey (BCS), which measures household experiences - rather than actual offences reported - since 1981. (The U.S. has an elaborate annual survey of victimisation. India does not have any, and relies almost entirely on the Crime in India report brought out every year by the National Crime Records Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs.) According to the BCS, crime has been falling in the United Kingdom since 1995. In 2000, incidents of violent crime actually dipped by 19 per cent and domestic burglary by 17 per cent.

Knowledgeable observers, however, believe that the upward trend now seen in London reflects a similar trend in the rest of the country. When quizzed on this, my good friend Peter Neyroud, who heads the Thames Valley Police, whose jurisdiction adjoins that of the Met, tells me that more proactive and transparent policing that encourages the public to come forward freely with their complaints has brought in this phenomenon of high crime. (Neyroud is perhaps the youngest and possibly the brightest of the Chief Constables among the 43 forces in the country.) His own force has lately seen a rise in robberies, and a shift in preference to burglaries. He considers rising crime a natural phenomenon, seen against a setting of growing affluence and the expanding proportion of the youth in the population as compared to a few years ago. The open admission of a spurt in crime will startle many of our own police chiefs who have been conditioned to believe that doing so is tantamount to making a confession of incompetence. A few chiefs almost lost their jobs some decades ago because of their 'indiscretion' in urging free registration of crime in an ambience that rewarded suppression and dressing up of crime figures!

Giuliani has, rightly or wrongly, become a cult figure for those who stand for a tough city administration. Neyroud believes that Giuliani's so-called "success" should be reckoned against the fact that whatever drop in crime registered in New York City was also seen in nearly equal measure in many other cities such as Chicago which had adopted a problem-solving approach rather than zero tolerance. Further, New York's crime figures are not all that stable any longer to assert that zero tolerance delivers sustained results. What was laudable, in Neyroud's opinion, was Giuliani's tremendous backing of the New York Police Department (NYPD) that enabled the Police Commissioner to push through many harsh field initiatives. Neyroud would like to see this happening in the U.K. I also believe that there is no magic wand that could reverse high crime and hold it for a long period of time. Stemming crime and pegging it at acceptable levels needs very hard, intelligent and sustained team work that is supported to the hilt by a strong political will.

Back to London. The demand for strong law enforcement here comes in the wake of a series of incidents that can unnerve even the steeliest of Englishmen. Figures just released by the Met point to a near 50 per cent increase in street crime in January 2002. Also, on an average there were 200 street robberies a day, a rate higher than the previous year. The most daring recent incident has been the February 11 heist at Heathrow when a gang spirited away cash worth 4.6 million from a British Airways van in a high security area of the airport. The cash had arrived from Bahrain and was to be transported to New York, both by British Airways flights.

What has rattled the common person much more than the Heathrow robbery is a series of 'carjackings'. It is believed that stolen vehicles have a roaring market all over Europe. The violence that accompanies carjackings is abominable. A 25-year-old estate agent, Tim Robinson, was stabbed to death recently in South London in the presence of his fiancee, as he was parking his car outside his home, by two teenagers. His fault: he owned a sleek and expensive Audi. The police believe that it was a case of attempted carjacking. A woman was forcibly pushed out of her car a few days later, late in the evening, in Dulwich, a generally somnolent southeast London suburb. She was the proud owner of a BMW! In another incident, a mother, who had got out of her car for a moment to drop off a letter, leaving behind her two children inside, saw to her horror miscreants driving away with the screaming children. They were released after a hot chase, but neither the car nor the offenders have been traced. There is a feeling that soft targets are being chosen by some misguided youth.

You should know that a simple theft of cars has become more difficult than before because of the growing effectiveness of in-built devices which immobilise a car and set off an alarm. So, the hardened criminal has taken to 'carjacking', however crude this expression may be. Miscreants following you in their car can bump into yours, especially if you are driving a BMW, Porsche, Mercedes Benz or Jaguar, and when you get out to see what is happening, you are relieved of your vehicle. The police have advised motorists not to rush out of their cars while bumped from behind, and not to leave their keys in the ignition while paying for petrol and not to resist when threatened to hand over keys. Theoretically, the caution is welcome and is apparently practical. The point, however, is that when somebody plays on your psychosis after much preparation, you are hardly likely to be on your guard.

A police handout photograph (with the officer's face pixelated to avoid his being identified) of the arrest of armed robber Sean Bradish in London. Sean and his brother Vincent Bradish, believed by the police to be one of the most prolific robbery teams in British criminal history, were convicted at London's Old Bailey on February 21.-REUTERS

Instances of street hold-up have also gone up, possibly because breaking into a home has become almost impossible thanks to the nearly foolproof alarm system. In street encounters, you are especially vulnerable if you flaunt a mobile phone. There is an alarming rise in thefts of such phones, estimated at about 10,000 a month in London. In a recent daring incident, 26,000 phones worth 4.2 million were stolen from a warehouse in Hayes, Middlesex.

There have been a few street shootouts also in some traditionally quiet areas. Such frequent use of firearms, relatively unknown earlier, has naturally caused widespread concern in a city patrolled on foot by the fabled Bobby to whom a firearm is an irksome appendage. Only those policemen on dignitary protection duty normally carry a weapon, although I am told that lately, armed vehicular patrol by special squads has been intensified.

Altogether, a series of bizarre happenings in quick succession has embarrassed a force that had been traditionally cited as the epitome of efficiency. Home Secretary David Blunkett has done some tough talking, threatening intervention in Met affairs. Many look upon this as a political statement that he necessarily had to make. Although it may reflect the popular sentiment, Blunkett's warning has evoked adverse reactions within the Met. While Commissioner Sir John Stevens has not taken on the Home Secretary directly, his action in signing an open letter to the Prime Minister from leaders of some of London's public service organisations has caused the raising of eyebrows. The letter has taken umbrage at the impression given by politicians, through their "policies and priorities", that "public services are badly managed and need to be taught lessons from the private sector". Some of the Commissioner's deputies are credited with the view that the Home Secretary would better remember that quelling crime is equally the responsibility of the government, and that he should initiate measures to tighten up the law rather than blame the police all the time. The Times was even more carping when it said: "If he (the Home Secretary) interprets every policing problem and every worrying statistic as being the last resort, he will find himself gradually taking over Britain's police forces and trying to run them from his office. The folly of such a course is obvious."

Amidst all this controversy, the Met has initiated several swift measures. More than 400 traffic personnel have been redeployed to tackle muggers on the street. Scotland Yard has launched a Safer Streets Campaign that has led to 1,500 arrests (including 120 for robbery). More than 300 persistent young offenders have been targeted for action. The Yard claims a nearly 10 per cent drop in complaints of street crime as a result of all these tactics.

IN this context, unlike in India, a refreshing feature of the scene in most of the West, especially the U.S. and the U.K., is the enormous interest shown by the academic community in studying crime and suggesting measures to combat it. Such concern is of great value to the community as well as the police. Here, I am deeply impressed by the motto of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science in the University College, London (UCL). Headed by the dynamic and result-oriented Prof. Gloria Laycock, the Institute will not settle for merely understanding crime, as many criminologists are wont to do. It will go beyond this to adopt a problem-solving approach that will prevent crime. It has rightly invited Prof. Ron Clarke of the Rutgers University, New Jersey to visit for a semester and teach situational crime prevention, an area in which he is a world authority.

This approach proceeds on the solid assumption that most crime is opportunity-driven, and that by making targets of crime more and more difficult of access one can substantially reduce opportunities. This tactic has paid rich dividends in some sectors, although there is the criticism that crime so prevented often gets displaced to newer areas which are more vulnerable. The U.K. experience of car thefts yielding place to carjackings is perhaps appropriate. Notwithstanding this drawback, situational crime prevention has a lot to commend for itself and its significance needs to be imbibed by field-level police officers in India.

Incidentally, the Jill Dando Institute was set up at the UCL last year in memory of the BBC presenter of the popular serial 'Crime Watch'. Dando, hailed as the 'Golden Girl of TV', was murdered on April 26, 1999 in cold blood by Barry George, a total stranger, outside her home in Fulham, London. Barry was possibly infatuated with her and was not reconciled to her engagement to a doctor. The only pieces of evidence against him were that he was seen in the neighbourhood on the day of the crime and a speck of firearm residue was found in his coat pocket. The prosecution could not cite any motive. This is why the Judge, while convicting him for life on the basis of circumstantial evidence, made the now famous observation: "Why you did it may never be known... It is possible you can (also) give no rational explanation."

Against the backdrop of a disconcerting crime scene in London, the Jill Dando Institute recently held a one-day conference on Geographic Information Science (GIS) and Crime Science. The theme was how a geographic study of crime at the macro and micro levels could help formulate prevention strategies. Indeed, crime mapping has in recent times transformed detective work in many parts of the world (see this column in Frontline, March 1, 2002).

One interesting paper, "Can streets be made safe?" by Prof. Bill Hillier of the UCL, was provocative in offering evidence from real case studies that crime was influenced by space, and that there was a probable interaction between local (the vulnerability of a specific space or house) and global (the layout type of the area in question) spatial factors. It is Hillier's finding on the basis of the British Crime Survey that "the fewer sides on which your dwelling is exposed to the public realm, the safer you are likely to be." His prescription: "... join buildings together, avoid any kinds of secondary access (even to a high wall, if it is exposed to the public realm), make sure that all public spaces are continuously 'constituted' by dwelling entrances, and maximise the intervisibility of these entrances by a linear rather than a broken up layout."

To some of us, Prof. Hillier may be stating the obvious. But what he tells us is based on hard evidence culled out from actual occurrences, and therefore cannot be ignored.

Prof. Laycock and others at the Jill Dando Institute deserve to be complimented for giving flesh and blood to the new discipline of crime science, as distinct from criminology and forensic science. The lead offered by them needs to be studied in detail by police officers, scientists and criminal justice policy-makers in India if we are to make headway in crime prevention and render it into a meaningful exercise. In this context, I look forward to an international conference on Environment Criminology that is billed for August in Hyderabad.

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