I wanted to drop you a friendly “hello” — and not just because I got mugged recently — but because I like to write to all the mayoral candidates. Look, it’s true you’ve done some good as Mayor. But when it comes to safety and policing, there’s a lot of work to do… you’ve only got to look at the appalling explosion in knife crime to see that something has gone fundamentally wrong.
But rather than doing what columnists love most — carping and bitching on the side-lines — I’ve come up with some actual suggestions. Do pass them on to the other candidates, if you ever happen to bump into them.
First, much as I love window-dressing, it simply isn’t enough — it’s time to start working the till. The Mayor has to get full control of the police budget… it’s got to be wrestled back from the Home Office. Mainly that will mean that, if things go wrong, there will be nothing to hide behind. We — the people of London — need to be as close as possible to the actual person who can make change.
Secondly, the police are fantastic… there I said it. It’s not hard to do. The Metropolitan Police, though admittedly not perfect, do a pretty brilliant job an awful lot of the time. I recently got mugged on the streets of North London by three masked boys on bikes who stole my phone. The only upside of this was the two brilliant, professional police officers who came to my house, were genuinely interested in helping me and clearly excellent at their jobs. But that was just a small example compared to when I’ve seen the police at their best. Yes, of course they make bad decisions (the Sarah Everard vigil is one example that crawls to mind) but for every few mistakes, there are innumerable unthanked successes. So much of what they do goes uncelebrated… just imagine the effect on morale when the only time people hear about you is when something has gone wrong.
As Mayor you have a lot of power to change the narrative around the police and their work. Bang your biggest drum, blow your fanciest trumpet — you’ve got to start hailing their accomplishments loudly and often. Thirdly, the police require real — real — community engagement. I happen to know what it can look like. In the early hours of January 2, 2003, two young women — Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare — were shot with a machinegun outside a hairdresser’s in Birmingham. An entire community was left devastated.
At that moment, it was thought that the gangs behind it were so entrenched that nothing could be done to get the perpetrators to trial. But then communities — chiefly communities of women — said “No”. They worked with the police to do everything they could to provide information leading to a successful conviction. I worked on that tragic case and saw it up close: it showed a real partnership with the police involving hearing and listening. It can work. Having an ongoing conversation is also how you find out about the things that people really need — where proper lighting is needed, or CCTV say… the smaller things that will make a profound difference.
Fourthly, you’ve got to tackle the deeper issues. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” is as cringey as slogans get, but it has a core of truth.
Yes, there are societal factors you can’t cure. But it’s also true that crime emanates from communities that have been lost to low opportunity, despair and disintegrating facilities. It leaves some people feeling they’ve no other option but crime. Too often in my criminal defence days, I’d sit in police cells with talented, intellectually curious young men who had surrendered their futures — almost by default — to brutal gangs. No one is born wanting to join these gangs, but I saw so many sucked in by toxic circumstances they couldn’t control.
So you need to work on community centres, you need to fund sporting facilities and — yes — you need to improve the quality of housing. People have to feel a powerful vested interest in preserving, protecting and defending the areas where they live … and you have to provide an alternative, reachable narrative for the boys currently conscripted into gangs.
And those, Sadiq, are my four steps to a happier, safer city. Do feel free to cut out this piece and keep it in your wallet … hopefully my byline photo will also help inspire you. Love, Rob.