In a truly creative interpretation of the role of the police, South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner went on national radio earlier this week to explain why the police force he oversees, despite being too short of resources to investigate actual crime, is now encouraging the public to report “non-crime hate incidents”.
That’s right. Dr Alan Billings, clearly recognising he has not a snowball’s chance in hell of being able to improve South Yorkshire Police’s record on investigation of actual crime, has decided that a better use of both his and the force’s time, is to focus on incidents that are not criminal, but that may have resulted in “distress” to their victims. His explanation for this bizarre stance, is that “a non-crime incident… may well develop into a criminal incident” and that non-crime incidents cause tension within communities, which then lead to issues for policing within those communities.
Suddenly it’s all clear where this came from. This is the sort of idea that comes out of one of those awful brainstorming sessions, in which somebody stands at the front of a room insisting that “no idea is too crazy to discuss” and everybody sits in silence, thinking about what to have for lunch and sneaking glances at the clock, willing somebody else to come up with a good idea with which everybody else can agree. Eventually someone pipes up “Well, I was thinking about how prevention is better than cure…” and somebody else shouts out, “Yes! Brilliant idea! If we can prevent crime from even happening we can cut off the problem at the source!” Most of the room joins in to enthusiastically echo agreement – maybe we will get out early after all – drowning out the objections of the lone dissenter in the corner trying to point out that the public still expect the police to investigate crime that actually has happened.
We shouldn’t be surprised that this is where we’ve ended up. Just look at how quickly the #MeToo movement morphed from encouraging women to speak up about sexual assault, to politicians and celebrities being hounded over incidents as trivial as a hand on a knee, a flirty text message or a bad first date. We even had calls for wolf-whistling to be made a crime, on the basis that “while wolf-whistling itself is not criminal, it makes women feel uncomfortable and encourages predatory behaviour, which in turn may lead to sexual assault”. The intense focus on what a behaviour “may” lead to, rather than what it actually is, has become a national obsession.
We see it, too, in newspaper articles which try to convince us that the far-right is a greater threat to western democracy than Islamic extremism. Angry and abusive tweets, graffiti, and aggressive and insulting words, we are told, are a far greater threat than actually being blown up, run over or stabbed while on a night out with friends, or crossing a bridge to get to work.
To those tasked with preventing and solving crime, it must be a comforting approach, to be able to treat crime that has already happened as “in the past” and therefore of lesser importance than the far greater number of crimes that potentially could happen, if one just uses one’s imagination. Just imagine Dr Billings, reporting back to the Minister on his progress in office – “Well, as you can see from this chart here, we had 100 unsolved burglaries in South Yorkshire last month, but as a result of our quick action in dealing with an offensive tweet, we prevented it from escalating into a community riot which could have caused untold damage to property and persons, and potentially even could have led to an incident of right-wing terrorism”.
Credit where it’s due – the man knows how to play the system. Just please don’t let him anywhere near the NHS, or our doctors’ surgeries will be filled with people encouraged to visit their doctors as soon as they feel a little below par, while those with life-threatening illnesses languish on endless waiting lists for appointments. While waiting times continue to rise, doctors can congratulate themselves on their ability to prevent the “worried well” from getting ill in the first place. Until the next policy meeting, when somebody pipes up “What was that saying about an apple a day?”.