24 June 2020

The police precept – what are we paying for?

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Given the level of service some of us get from them these days, I’d like my money back

As the defund the police movement – a campaign to stop bankrolling institutionally racist (and sometimes deadly) policing practices and instead invest in community care – grows in popularity across the United States, I am reminded of the increase in my London borough residents’ precept charge of 3.6% for this financial year 2020/21, following on from a hefty 8.9% rise in 2019/20

The majority of this rise will be used to pay the Metropolitan Police as part of this ‘law and order’ government’s promise to combat crime by putting 20,000 officers on the nation’s streets.

One London borough's council tax precept charges for 2019/20

However, given the state of policing in the UK, especially during this pandemic, I wonder whether I’m getting value for money? Looking at the other precept charges in my local borough, I can see a compelling case for the London Fire Brigade levy increase; the threat of fires has receded hugely over the last 20 years as a direct result of their firefighting and prevention work. But the police record in relation to crime – especially stop and search – is ambiguous to me.

To put it another way, how can they demonstrably prove that they reduce or prevent crime? Do I have their ‘intelligence-led’ tactics and remote surveillance tech to thank for every street I walk down unassaulted or unmugged? Or is it more likely that I don’t even register in most people’s radars, engrossed as they are in their own lives?

And for those who have been or know victims of crime, how many of those crimes have the police satisfactorily resolved

If, to paraphrase former policing minister Nick Herbert, we’re yet to find that ‘simple link’ between officer numbers and crime after the upswing in recruitment, then would it be fair to say we’ve wasted our money on them?

For every situation that turns violent because of – and not despite – the presence of officers, for every weapon used excessively and/or unlawfully on unarmed civilians, for every false ‘you and your vehicle match the description’ encounter, some individuals must wonder whether they are getting a raw deal?

Like those Black youth workers, bank managers, and even councillors on police scrutiny committees, who are repeatedly stopped and searched on spurious grounds. And those who are automatically treated as suspects on contact with the police despite being the victims of racist attacks. And those who have the nerve to glance at police vehicles whilst driving one of their own, on a road. What are they paying for? State-sanctioned harassment? Surely they should get a tax refund for every wrongful stop, the way Transport for London would refund its commuters for an unacceptably late journey? 

Around 30% of your local police force’s funding comes from council tax, through the policing precept – a special levy – but with 38 stop and searches for every 1,000 Black people compared with four for every 1,000 White people, Black people must be double-checking their council tax receipts to see if they’ve been shortchanged.

And in time, parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) may come to a similar conclusion: in 2017/18, they found an increasing number of local public bodies were ‘poor at securing value for money’ for their residents.

The defund the police campaign highlights the possibility of using taxation as a means of holding the police accountable. For example, local authorities would do well to divest underperforming forces of funds and put them to more socially useful local community institutions. One comprehensive US study of the effect of two decades’ worth of the ‘“systemic” model of community organisation’ on crime rates estimates the causal effect on violent crime of every 10 additional nonprofit organisations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents has lead to a 9% reduction in the murder rate, a 6% reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4% reduction in the property crime rate. Expert researchers in the UK have also made sophisticated arguments worth hearing on the issue, stemming from an established movement centred on an alternative view of criminal justice.

Until then, what are we paying for? Racially disproportionate policing? Because if that’s the level of service we’re getting these days, I’d like my money back please.

Written by Eugene K, communications volunteer for StopWatch UK coalition.

Lead image by fran hogan on Unsplash.