In recent years you could be forgiven for thinking there is very little to celebrate in the worlds of policing and crime prevention. Crime, as always, has dominated the headlines with
alarming tenacity. Knife crime is going up, while 22,500 fewer officers are on our streets.
Stop and search continues to spark controversy, while organised criminal empires expand
using ‘county lines’. All this alongside uncertainty over the future of cross-border policing
with our European neighbours.
In the midst of these developments are 40 individuals with enormous power to transform the
way that the police and wider criminal justice system responds to these challenges. Most of
the 40 have never served in the police, but all have been given a public mandate for change.
These are the directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).
Having worked for three PCCs over the last six years, I am aware of the cynicism around
their role that remains with many in the police and the public. In some cases such cynicism
is entirely fair. PCCs have far-reaching powers and set the budgets for police forces. Their
ability to make a positive difference is huge, and so they deserve high expectations to be
placed on them. Not all have risen to meet these expectations.
This is where I believe there is a good news story, if we consider the changes in recent
years to the way we police drugs.
Drugs policing meets the Police and Crime Commissioner
PCCs occupy a unique place in the police governance landscape. They set the strategy for
the police and wider criminal justice system, while also holding the Chief Constable directly
to account. PCCs in County Durham, the West Midlands and North Wales are actively
promoting treating addiction first and foremost as a health issue rather than a criminal justice
one. In other areas, such as Avon & Somerset and Thames Valley, police forces themselves
are leading reform but with the consent (explicit or implied) of their PCCs.
This level of local drug policy reform was not possible before the introduction of PCCs – not
without the consent of the Home Office at least, which never came. PCCs have broken new
ground on British drug policy and there is very little mechanism for reigning them in. Those
with a legal responsibility to scrutinise their PCC are considered to have insufficient powers
or inadequate resources to effectively do so. This is a worrying arrangement, but does
overcome the fact that evidence-based drug policy has often been stifled in the world of
The power to curtail PCCs lies firmly with the voting public, once every four years, rather
than with local councillors. Ron Hogg, the original PCC advocate for a fresh approach to
drugs, saw his majority increase at the 2016 election. It is difficult to say whether this is
despite or because of Mr Hogg’s very vocal campaign for a ‘sensible not soft’ approach to
drugs, but certainly implies that such an approach is not broadly unacceptable to voters.
“We cannot carry on like this”
No matter which way you look at it, the harm associated with Class A drugs such as heroin
and crack-cocaine is unacceptably high. Public Health England predict that there an
estimated 313,971 people using opiates and/or crack-cocaine in England.
When I led on drug policy in the West Midlands, we used the latest Home Office figures to
measure the cost to society of every person using these drugs. This was £62,320 per person
when considering only four indicators: drug-related crime, health service use, drug-related
deaths, and social care. The figure for the West Midlands crack and opiate-using population
is an eye-watering £1.4bn.
By the same methodology, the cost to England – and by extension, English taxpayers – of
heroin and crack-cocaine use is around £19.6bn.
PCCs were born in the context of austerity. Some more cynical commentators even
suggested that they could be a scapegoat for government cuts to police funding. Either way,
two competing and opposing forces have been at the forefront of every PCC’s mind since
2012: funding going down while demand for police is going up.
Resistance to a health-led approach to addiction is in part a consequence of the reluctance
to spend money on drug treatment services. As austerity squeezed local councils, budgets
for drug treatment services were among the first to be cut. Arguably another consequence of
making this health service subject to election cycles where politicians are acutely aware of
pleasing voters. It’s not to say that voters do not want people to be treated for their addiction. Only that those more likely to vote probably feel cuts to bins and buses more acutely.
I once attended a conference on organised crime where the then Home Secretary Theresa
May challenged police to embrace austerity as an opportunity to focus on their priorities and
be smarter. A tough pill to swallow given the loss of so many officers and staff.
Some PCCs have embraced this issue though, insisting that the cost of problematic drug
use is set in the context of current policies. The logic follows that if our policies were working, addiction would not be costing society so much. This isn’t just a matter for the public purse. The true cost of addiction is felt in the vast range of harm and crime associated with it. When it is all added up, it becomes clear that we simply cannot carry on like this.
Drugs reform now
For many years, campaigners for a health-led approach to drugs have felt like they are
pushing against a brick wall. Calls for changes to the law, the recent victory on medical
cannabis aside, have largely been ignored by successive governments. The brick wall has
not buckled. In England, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 continues to be used every four
minutes in the enforcement of drugs offences. When the Home Office had greater powers to
control policing strategy, they were entwined with the very same governments that would not
give any ground on legal matters.
PCCs are a move away from that. The political courage of one PCC does not rely on the
political backing of another. The government have almost no powers to direct them, and their
parties do not use a whip system to control them. If they want to pursue diversion schemes
so that people are no longer charged for drug possession offences, they can do it. This
already happens in County Durham, Avon & Somerset, and Thames Valley. Other PCCs are
promoting similar schemes and we can expect several more to be launched this year.
Keeping people suffering from addiction out of prison does not mean they are free to harm
others. In County Durham, they have focused on the right support instead of the wrong conviction. For those engaged with the ‘Checkpoint’ diversion scheme, reoffending rates
have fallen by 40%.
PCCs are expected to take a strategic view of the criminal justice system. They should know
that one in five heroin-using prisoners try heroin for the first time while in prison. Traditional
criminal justice routes are not fit for purpose in tackling addiction or its associated harms.