Ending overpolicing: a new, liberal approach

As liberals, we are uniquely placed on issues of tackling societal problems, as the UK party which has historically been driven by caring from the community level up, not just the top down: redistributive, willing to stand up for those marginalised by society, and sceptical of an overbearing and authoritarian state infrastructure.

Today, especially given the racial disparities which are all too clear in our policing and our society as a whole, that liberal legacy must be put to work again, starting a radical rethink of how Britain deals with its social problems. We use the police for far too many problems across our society: overstretched forces dealing with problems the police were never going to be effective at solving, leading to problems developing, community mistrust, and discriminatory outcomes. It’s a round peg in a square hole that’s damaging all of us as successive governments keep trying the authoritarian method of hammering it in ever harder. But there is a better way.

Finding ways to ensure people, especially black people, feel reassured that the police have appropriate powers and oversight has to be part of the puzzle. Stop and Search powers are largely ineffectual, widely mistrusted, and statistically clearly flagrantly racist in their deployment. There can no longer be any argument for Section 60 powers that allow Stop and Searches without suspicion of a crime to be controlled solely within the police force: they should be abolished and an external magistrate should be required to sign any sort of future search order, reducing overuse and acting as an important assurance for communities. Stronger oversight measures that bring in communities better, and ensuring that groups like the Border Force come under proper scrutiny, are also important parts of that picture.

The real task ahead, however, is to broaden our conception of how to deal with societal problems away from simply using the procedural justice system, the pipeline of policing, courts and sentencing that we rely on for far too many of our problems. On the front line, we should be piloting community teams that work on conflict de-escalation and helping people toward other services they need. Run from local government not from the Home Office, these could provide a more easily trusted, more engaged service that is better equipped to deal with problems, preventing them escalating and providing a more specialised approach to solving a wide range of problems in a more localised and sensitive way. That could mean anything from ensuring homeless people have good access to night services, to talking people through a neighbourhood conflict that has caused, or risks causing, property damage, to forwarding a shoplifting incident to appropriate restorative justice systems.

To allow that last point to take place we need to radically expand the use of restorative justice. A great deal of evidence suggests its efficacy for both satisfying victims and rehabilitating perpetrators of crime. We should aim for restorative justice to move fast towards being a default option for non-violent crimes, and plan to commit significant new funds to expand services and promote their use. We should also avoid thinking of restorative justice as simply “courts but not courts”, and create routes for community mediators to refer issues to restorative systems without any involvement for the police at all, reducing load on the overstretched procedural justice system.

Moving towards these options will not happen overnight: but they are a clear direction that we should head in. Above all, as we search for new directions as a party, we should look to ideas like these – ones that come from looking at the evidence and following our values to get us towards a stronger, kinder society as a whole.

If you agree with the above, Natasha Chapman and I have prepared a statement of points, and we welcome signatures from all members.

* James Baillie is a member and activist from Breckland and a former chair of the Lib Dems' Radical Association. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Vienna, where he works on digital studies of medieval Georgia. He blogs about politics at thoughtsofprogress.wordpress.com.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Adam Bernard 20th Jun '20 - 1:00pm

    A lot of good thoughts here. I wonder if existing PCSOs could usefully be moved from being police-lite to being a foundation of community teams, liaising with rather than reporting directly to the police. Their role already somewhat straddles the two models.

  • Just one problem, the overwhelming majority of the population want more police on the streets and harsher punishments.

  • John Marriott 20th Jun '20 - 3:56pm

    The power of PCSOs varies from force to force. I believe that some forces give them the same warranted powers as a Special Constable. Many do not, which is why they are often unfairly looked upon by some as examples of ‘policing on the cheap’.

    Living in Austria at the moment, it might be interesting to find out if Mr Baillie can give us an insight as to how policing works over there, if, of course, he can spare time from his studies of medieval Georgia. I bet they didn’t bother much how many heads they banged together back then! Policing by consent has always been how we have tried to do it over here since the days of Sir Robert Peel, not always with complete success.

  • James’ Ballie’s well-intentioned article on Policing is unfortunately a little behind the times on developments in the UK.
    Many Local Authorities across the UK over the last couple of years have been adopting the ‘Violence Reduction Network’ (VRN) approach to reducing some of the worst (i.e. Violent) crime from occurring in the first place. The VRN is a Public Health approach led by Local Authorities who take up this recently developed approach (perhaps with origins in the successful reduction of knife crime in Glasgow) which examines the detailed roots and social circumstances of their areas where there are a higher incidents of perpetrators and victims of recorded instances of Violence. This approach involves the Local Authority concerned taking the lead, rather than arguing over the extent to which the Police can or can’t engage with individuals and affected communities over the consequences after violence has been perpetrated.

    Another aspect where this article seems unfortunately out of date is the broad trend of traditional non-violent crimes such as burglary to be in decline (except for opportunistic burglaries) as online and mobile phone fraud become more prevalent, as those are less risky crimes for the perpetrator to undertake and more difficult for current policing resources to tackle.

  • James Baillie 20th Jun '20 - 7:45pm

    Thanks all for the comments.

    Tomas, I disagree that the article is out of date – whilst I think the public health approach to violent crime is a good improvement, it’s still a step removed from actually providing one or more fully separate new community services to deal with the sorts of problems I mention. And my use of “traditional” NV crimes as exemplars here is mainly just because people find them more easy to think about: restorative justice approaches absolutely can work just as well for fraud cases, and as you point out the rise in online crime strengthens the case that a single, old-school policing model should not be treated as a catch-all. So I take your points, but I think the above is a logical development from them that could enabled with appropriately targeted funding.

    John, I can’t claim to be an expert on Austrian policing unfortunately (and LDV isn’t the right place for me to elaborate on crime & punishment in the Medieval caucasus, alas!). I think all government services need to work by consent, and we need to recognise that consent in this case isn’t just a “yes always/no never”: there will be limits to what people and communities will consent to particular services and groups doing, which is a big reason why new services could be able to do things that the police can’t.

    Steve: Thanks, yes, the ideas here do stem from that sort of thing – this is really a first attempt at boiling down and tweaking a simpler, more singular set of priorities for use in a UK context.

    Malc: If that’s true then we have to persuade them that this is a better option, because it is. Arguing for liberal policies that improve things for everyone is what we’re here for in a liberal party.

    Adam: Yes, I can see the logic there, though I think not having them under the aegis of the police system is important here.

  • Antony Watts 21st Jun '20 - 12:09pm

    Same goes for schools where we now expect them to instill “moral behaviour” giving up out parental responsibilities.

  • Frank Little 22nd Jun '20 - 2:16pm

    Removing a welter of offences from the statute book, which Blair/Brown added and which could be dealt with by other means, would help. And what do the police on the ground think of the circumstances under which they have to operate?

  • The issue seems to be the pervading culture within police forces. They are only humans attempting to do what they are directed, namely protecting the public. It is the autonomy that individual police officers have that is alarming. We all have bad days and it is the duty of comrades to monitor, observe and act when actions are disproportionate whether this is on the ground or remotely.

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