It is a grumble heard in neighbourhoods across Britain: that bobbies on the beat have disappeared, even at those critical moments when you need them to help tackle a live crime.
According to the Office for National Statistics, almost half of the public (48 per cent) say they never see police on patrol – the highest proportion since records began,
It is a statistic that has been brought into grim relief this week by the case of Nathan Smith. The 38-year-old live-in carer from Bristol was prosecuted after performing a citizen’s arrest on Craig Wiltshire, 43, who he suspected of being behind a string of car break-ins in the area. Wiltshire died after Smith had knelt on his back for nine minutes, as he waited for police to arrive.
Locals claimed that they had been plagued by crime in the neighbourhood and had accused the police of doing nothing to investigate. Smith was cleared on Wednesday, after the jury decided his actions were proportionate.
He is not alone in his frustration at cuts and other policing priorities having stripped communities of their neighbourhood officers. And he’s not the only person to have taken the law into their own hands.
More than a third of the public say they are dissatisfied with the police, the highest figure for a decade, according to the ONS. Official figures published on Thursday showed that fewer than one in 25 thefts is solved, half the rate of five years ago. Many people have given up reporting low level crime in the belief that it is unlikely to be investigated, let alone solved. Up to 10 times more people have been victims of the most common crimes than the numbers officially recorded by police.
As a result, increasing numbers of communities are setting up their own WhatsApp groups to investigate crimes, hiring private security firms to patrol their estates or, in more extreme cases, operating as vigilantes online to hunt down child abusers.
There are apps such as the neighbourhood messaging platform Nextdoor, on which crimes are being solved – often within hours of being committed. By sharing images of suspects captured on household cameras and doorbells, communities can identify perpetrators and recover stolen property by confronting them with the evidence – giving them the choice of handing back goods or being reported to the police.
One enterprising mother of two from north London describes how her husband used CCTV and local knowledge to track down a bike thief. “He got it back by 2pm, before I had even got through to the police. As residents, we just feel the police are nowhere to be seen,” she says.
“The police can no longer do this on their own. It needs to be neighbourhood watch, it needs to be residents, or it needs to be some form of private security,” says David McKelvey, a former Met Police detective chief inspector who founded My Local Bobby – a private police force, for which residents can club together and pay between £50 and £1,000 a month each. It claims to have slashed burglaries on London estates by providing uniformed patrols and an investigation team of 34 detectives. One area, previously afflicted by up to 15 burglaries a month, has now had none in seven months.
Under the Government’s uplift programme to recruit 20,000 additional officers by March 2023, police chiefs are starting to reinstate neighbourhood bobbies after years of cuts. But it won’t stop forces continuing to prioritise “high harm” crimes like domestic violence and child abuse. “Police have moved from their priorities away from burglaries, motor theft or cycle crime. It is all about safeguarding people who are vulnerable,” adds McKelvey.
So how far can the ordinary citizen go in defending their property, or intervening to prevent a crime?
Take the motorist who, this week who was arrested on suspicion of murder after being accused of driving into a man who was in the process of stabbing his ex-wife, Yasmine Chkaifi, to death on a north London street. The driver, named only as Abraham, 26, has claimed, in a statement issued through his lawyers, that he feels as though he’s being treated like a criminal.
Your rights for making a citizen’s arrest are set out in Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967. It states that a person may “use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime or in the effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offender.”
The Crown Prosecution Service will decide if the force used is “reasonable” – if not, there is risk of an assault charge. There have been cases where a citizen has been charged with kidnap for arresting a suspect and then detaining them in their home while waiting for police to arrive.
Yasmine Chkaifi was murdered by her husband in a street in Maida Vale Credit: Shutterstock
Householders have a similar defence of “reasonable” force, although the law was tilted in favour of the ordinary citizen in 2012, following cases including businessman Munir Hussain who was jailed for 30 months after chasing the intruders who had tied up his family and attacking them with a cricket bat. “Disproportionate” force is allowed if it’s judged to be reasonable in the heat of any attack, such as extreme fear of violence or your life.
Actions considered to constitute “revenge or retribution” aren’t protected under the law.
Sir Mike Penning, the former policing and justice minister who was part of the ministerial team that helped draft the 2012 law, believes it is time for a review of how it is being interpreted, adding that it “did not look like the CPS got it right” in this week’s Bristol case.
“What we cannot have is a ‘walk-on-by’ society because of a fear that you will be prosecuted yourself. I want people to have confidence that they can step in and help, that they have confidence that the system is on their side,” he says.
The flip side, he adds, is the low prosecution rates in offences like rape – down to just 1.3 per cent of the crimes – where he believes the CPS set the bar too high and should be prepared to take more risks in order to prosecute more cases.
“There has to be a review firstly of citizen’s arrest and secondly around sexual assault and rape as the system does not seem to be working in the way that Parliament and the public expect it to be,” Penning says.
His call for a review is backed by Rick Muir, director of independent think tank the Police Foundation, who says the police should proactively provide advice to citizens on how to make an arrest, as well as guidance those in exposed roles such as bus drivers or shopkeepers on how to de-escalate violent situations.
“The police have a tendency to say: ‘Leave it to us. Call us and we will sort it out.’ The problem is that the police are overstretched and quite clearly they are not able to sort it out,” says Muir. “A lot of these crimes are not prioritised and you can understand why members of the public take things into their own hands.”
In the absence of bobbies on the beat and the country returning to normal crime rates after successive lockdowns, it may be the only solution.