Jul 26, 2008

World - Violent Britain

The angry men of Europe—and how to calm them down

LONDON, once seen as a quiet and respectable sort of city, is in the grip of a culture de poignard, the French press have taken to reporting. On June 29th two students from the University of Clermont-Ferrand were found horribly murdered in the British capital. The bodies of the young men—bound, multiply stabbed and set alight—have inspired horror on both sides of the Channel. A grisly run of teenage murders before this episode had already caused Britons to wonder what is up.
England and Wales are not unusually murderous.The homicide rate is higher than anywhere in western Europe except Finland, Belgium and indeed France (though Britain edges ahead of France when Scotland and Northern Ireland are included). But Britain looks gentle next to former colonies such as Canada, New Zealand and especially America. And it compares favourably with the EU average, thanks to the new eastern European states: in Latvia and Lithuania homicide is five times as common as it is in Britain.
But there is more to life than avoiding death. When it comes to non-deadly violence Britain soars alarmingly ahead of the rest. Cross-country crime comparisons are tricky, but the International Crime Victims Survey (ICVS) is the best of the non-homicide bunch. In it people from 28 rich countries are asked if they have been attacked or threatened in the past five years. Britain comes second (after tiny Iceland), ahead of countries with much higher murder rates.
It is tempting to say it was ever thus, summoning Caesar or Chaucer to prove it. But in 1988 the ICVS placed Britain only eighth in Europe for the incidence of threats and assaults, well behind America, Canada and the Antipodes. The subsequent catch-up is not due just to a fit of the jitters: Britain maintains its lead when assaults only, minus threats, are examined. A New Yorker visiting London is less likely to be murdered than he would be at home. But he is more likely to be beaten up.
The evolution of Britain as a low-murder, high-violence society is in evidence every Saturday night, when many, stoked by alcohol, prefer an after-dinner fight to mints. Much of this goes unrecorded, as the British Crime Survey ignores victims under 16; yet even so, against a backdrop of generally falling crime, the figures for attacks by strangers remain stubbornly high. Doctors say that their wards see more stabbing victims, and injuries from guns have almost trebled since 2000. At the same time, however, homicide has been falling since 2003. Those guns that are injuring more people are killing fewer, and the number of those stabbed to death is stable.
So murder is not the problem. But it might suggest what is. Take London, where murder is at a nine-year low. A recent study by King’s College London shows that the over-35s are being murdered less frequently but those under 17 are being murdered more often. From 2000 to 2006, between 15 and 19 teenagers were killed in the capital each year. Last year the figure hit 26; this year, only half-complete, 19 have died.
This changing profile might explain why, overall, injuries are up and murder is down: serious violence is becoming an amateur pursuit. “I was 16 eight years ago and it wasn’t like that then,” says Brooke Kinsella, a soap actress whose brother Ben was murdered on June 29th. Politicians “don’t know what’s going on. It’s the people that live in their local communities that know and hear about these attacks every day,” she told an interviewer. The day after her remarks, the Metropolitan Police said that knife crime had become their priority, ahead even of terrorism.
Ms Kinsella got five and a half minutes on the BBC to put her case. That is more say than most people have in how they are policed. Britain’s 43 forces are answerable only to the home secretary and their local police authority, a weedy board of councillors, magistrates and assorted other appointees with little clout. Policemen may hold surgeries for local people, but they can take or leave whatever requests such meetings throw up. Instead, they are subservient to a rigid system of central targets, which has inadvertently encouraged coppers to focus on busting minor offenders rather than on keeping their patches safe.
This centralisation of control—which dates back to the 1960s, when corruption was a problem in many local forces—has also meant that the debate about how to deal with violence, or any other crime, takes place nationally. Everyone has ideas: the government wants a “presumption of prosecution” of those caught with knives; the Tories have trumped that with a “presumption of imprisonment”. Cherie Blair, a former Downing Street spouse, weighed in on July 6th; Anglicans pondered the subject at their General Synod; and Catholics are planning a vigil. The only people who haven’t had much of a voice are voters. Unlike America, whose elected sheriffs enjoy (and sometimes abuse) real power, Britain’s police chiefs do not take orders from the people they protect.
Those savages: maybe not so dim
That is soon to change—a bit. A policing green paper, expected later this month, will introduce some kind of directly-elected local control. Various options are on the table. The Tories want to replace police authorities with elected police commissioners, who would set policing priorities as well as signing off on budgets. The government seems to be leaning towards a tamer option: preserving the police authorities that now exist, but insisting that their members be elected. Home Office research shows that the “vast majority” of Britons have never heard of police authorities, and most of those who have don’t know what they do. It is hard to imagine chief constables being bossed around by anonymous people elected on a minuscule turnout.
Ministers may fear that local control of the police would lead to populist law enforcement. That is a danger, but two things mitigate it. For one, the existing criminal-justice system, led by a government in distress, is not exactly un-populist. (A recent Cabinet Office review recommended that those undergoing community punishments should wear fluorescent vests to shame them publicly.)
More importantly, the public is quite often ahead of the game. The level of street violence is one example; another is the public obsession with putting more bobbies on the beat, once ridiculed by criminologists but now all the rage in the form of “neighbourhood policing”. If the public can be given more say, ideas such as these might surface a bit faster.

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