The police chief in charge of boosting crime fighting has criticised Liz Truss’s law and order plans as “unwise” and “meaningless”, accusing her of chasing “soundbite-friendly” but unrealistic targets.
Chief constable Richard Lewis, the lead on performance for the National Police Chiefs Council, said he and law enforcement leaders wanted to work with the new government.
But in a comment piece for the Guardian, Lewis said “back to basics” rhetoric did not serve the public.
Lewis said the effects of the cuts to policing made by Conservative governments were still being felt and urged ministers to stop describing the recruitment of 20,000 officers as an “uplift”, as it was replacing those lost since 2010.
During the Tory party leadership race, Truss – who is widely expected to win on Monday – announced a series of polices on law and order, including a return to national crime targets, with chief constables held to account if their forces fail to meet them. Her campaign said she would ensure officers were “policing our streets, not debates on Twitter”.
Lewis’s concern at her comments is shared by other police chiefs, who believe there is no factual evidence to support the claim that real crimes are regularly being ignored because officers waste time on pointless Twitter rows and “wokeness”.
Another chief constable from a well-performing force told the Guardian there were fears the government was struggling on law and order, and thus “setting policing” up for the blame. They said: “We have been sliced and diced,” and added: “There is no force, that is not overwhelmed by crime, demands, and mental health.”
Lewis, the chief constable of the Dyfed-Powys force, said debate about policing was welcome but added: “The public are not well-served by calls for the force to ‘investigate real crime as opposed to Twitter rows and hurt feelings’; or generalised phrases such as ‘back to basics’, as used by Liz Truss’s campaign.
“I was particularly interested in Liz Truss’s headline-grabbing ‘back to basics’ crime strategy, which would involve ranking forces in league tables, a commitment to recruit 20,000 more police officers and cut murders and violent crime by 20%, and an in-person visit by an officer for every victim of domestic burglary.
“While these demands may make attractive headlines, they are meaningless without further explanation from the Tory leadership hopeful.”
Truss called for 20% cuts in key crime types such as homicide. Centrally set targets came in under Labour but were dropped because they led to perverse incentives, with officers prioritising crimes measured by targets, while paying less attention to those that were not, even if they caused more harm.
Lewis said chasing soundbite-friendly numbers was unrealistic: “The judgment on whether a force is ‘failing’ cannot be reduced to an apparent inability to cut crimes such as homicide by 20% (again, as suggested by Truss).
“While I acknowledge that police forces can always do more to cut crime, it is not within our gift to reduce the most serious crimes by a rounded and soundbite-friendly number of 20%.”
He said while there was more to be done, homicide was down 12% in the year to March 2021: “This fact may be politically inconvenient when making the case for the need to cut crime, but it provides important context.”
Lewis added: “Moreover, the government holding only chief constables to account for cutting specific crime types is analogous to holding only doctors to account for patients developing cancer; patently an unwise thing to do. Just as in health, important external factors are at play when considering crime, including social factors such as poverty, over which the police service has no control.”
Lewis said improving the police response to burglaries, for example by ensuring that every victim received an officer visit, would require resources: “This has been harder to achieve since the Conservatives’ programme of austerity, as police numbers were cut significantly.
“We should, however, stop calling the investment an ‘uplift’ of 20,000 officers in the way the government characterises it (and I believe the public see through this clever use of terminology).”
Lewis said the new government needed to decide whether it wanted localism, as introduced by Theresa May when she was home secretary, or would pass new laws to have policing under greater central government control and direction.
“There is also an inherent contradiction between Truss’s call for government intervention on the performance of any given police force and the localised role of police and crime commissioners (a Conservative creation, after all),” he said.
Lewis said there were signs of hope in some medium- to long-term initiatives on drug use, introduced by Boris Johnson’s government, which showed “a real commitment to solving long-term societal problems, which is appreciated”.
Explaining why he has spoken out, Lewis said: “Conversations between the police service and ministers are generally conducted discreetly, but when public policy ideas such as Truss’s ‘back to basics’ are touted, we have a duty to respectfully challenge them to help elevate the public discourse.
“Arbitrary requirements to cut crime by specific amounts, which often drive perverse behaviours (such as focusing on easier-to-achieve outcomes as opposed to harder but more worthy ones) should be avoided.”
Truss has been contacted for comment.