Love and Crime

Theodore Zeldin

  • Recollections and Reflections of a Country Policeman by W.C. May
    A.H. Stockwell (Ilfracombe), 342 pp, £6.60, July 1979, ISBN 0 7223 1199 0
  • The Police in Society by Ben Whitaker
    Eyre Methuen, 351 pp, £6.95, March 1979, ISBN 0 413 34200 X

Modern imaginative literature has two favourite themes: love and crime. Most people accept that love is a mystery full of twists and surprises that are not predictable by science or reason. It is natural that its infinite variations should be probed most interestingly by novelists rather than by experts and statisticians: no one has dared set up a Chair of Amorology. But what can untrained amateurs say that is new about crime, which has whole armies of lawyers, policemen, professors and politicians who claim to know all the answers? Is the literary concern with crime simply a game, indulging the pleasures to be obtained from hide-and-seek and from solving puzzles? Is it likely that as criminology becomes more and more scientific, the novelist will have to withdraw?

I do not think so: love and crime have more in common than may appear at first sight. Love is one of the revolutionary forces of modern times: in its intense and individualistic form, it has increasingly subverted the preoccupation with prestige and property that once governed marriage and, indeed, society as a whole. It has become a universal western ideal. Crime is also a rebellion, but it is usually thought of as the affair of a small minority. This view of it is, however, outdated. In fact, most people are almost as likely to become criminals as to fall in love. The reason, which few appreciate, is that the number of actions that have been designated as crimes has been increasing in this century at a quite unprecedented rate. Governments are constantly thinking up new benefits, and therefore new offences, and the result is that one in three Englishmen may confidently expect to be charged with an offence some time in his life-time; in the USA 40 per cent are likely to, and that excludes traffic offences. In 1900, 78,000 indictable offences were committed in England: today the figure is two and a half million a year. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. A mere 10 or 15 per cent of crimes committed result in prosecution. In a US opinion poll, 91 per cent of Americans admitted to having committed at least one crime for which they could have received a prison sentence. And, of course, if you are so virtuous that you avoid committing a crime, you have a good chance of being the victim of one. One in every 11 children born in Atlanta, Georgia will be murdered if he stays in that city, and one in every six males in Harlem. However, we cling to the hope or illusion that an element of free will can keep us out of the ranks of criminals or their victims, and that is what makes crime such an inexhaustible tragic theme for literature.

The policemen to whom we give the task of saving society from itself are perhaps the most tragic figures in this drama. Their failure is all too obvious: they themselves admit that a burglar today has a ten-to-one chance of getting away scot-free, despite all the marvels of science that have been introduced to foil him and track him down. What is more, in most countries policemen are thoroughly disliked: they are pigs, flics. Just how bewildered this animosity is making them is revealed in Nicholas Alex’s vivid book, New York Cops Talk Back: A Study of a Beleaguered Minority.[1] They used to derive their self-esteem from the belief that they were the guardians of society, the embodiment of its values: they represented right. The police force, moreover, used to be a means by which poor people could climb the social ladder. But now they feel they are no longer getting the consideration they deserve from the public. They are constantly hounded by the press. They can never get enough recruits, so standards fall – to the extent that even people with criminal records have been known to become policemen. The romantic vision they have of their vocation when they join often ends in disillusionment. They dream of being independent fighters against evil, applauded for their courage, but they find themselves bored by an inexorable routine, turned into clerks: a narcotics arrest requires the filling-in of 14 different forms, each with four or five carbon copies. There are more and more supervisors to criticise and control them – quite apart from the political interference, the civilian complaints, the new limits, imposed on them in the use of firearms. They feel persecuted. They are no longer ‘Mr Good Guy’.

The English policeman is perhaps the least unpopular of his kind in any Western country. It has taken a lot of effort to make him so. When first established, the force was given a uniform specially designed to distinguish it from the military, but that did not stop people saying they were soldiers in top hats, to be used to put Wellington on the throne. In 1833, a coroner’s jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide when a policeman was killed during a riot of radical workers (he was one the first to lose his life on duty) and added that the police had been ferocious and brutal without provocation. In 1869 the police themselves admitted that the CID was ‘viewed with the greatest suspicion and jealousy by the majority of Englishmen and is in fact entirely foreign to the habits and feelings of the nation’. The detective had to overcome the prejudice against the ‘thief-taker’, who was seen as the blood brother rather than the enemy of the criminal. Jonathan Wild, the most famous thief-taker of the 18th century, who recovered stolen goods for a fee, was a crook. There was still something sinister about the detective in Dickens’s day. When Conan Doyle turned the detective into a gentleman, it was to point the contrast with the stupid official police. By putting reality and the novelist’s fantasy side by side, Ian Ousby, in Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle, shows how much more the public hoped for from its police.[2]

Sir Robert Peel had insisted that a policeman should have neither ‘the rank, habits or station of a gentleman’. The English policeman has always had a lower than average level of education, and has generally been paid less than a skilled worker. You can hire a constable for a private function for a mere £3.13 an hour, and even a Deputy Assistant Commissioner costs only £8: what plumber will turn out for that? However, the humble village policeman, by his very humility, won the respect of the country: he seldom made arrests, spent more time giving help and advice, remained unarmed, had no pretensions, did not talk about belonging to an ‘élite force’. He is still perhaps the ideal of the British policeman, and it is his image that explains why policemen are still approved of by the majority of the British population and why they come top in ‘sympathy scale’ polls.

The ideal, however, no longer corresponds to the reality. The modern CID policeman spends 40 per cent of his time on paperwork: he suffers the additional opprobrium of being a bureaucrat. The policeman today does not feel safe in the affections of the public. He complains of limitations placed on him (though he may have more power than his foreign counterparts, in that he can institute proceedings without the approval of an examining magistracy). He insists that he must use stealth, and sometimes even illegality, to perform what he considers to be his duty. Almost 75 complaints are lodged against the police every day of the year. He takes these complaints badly, because his esprit de corps, exaggerated in self-defence, leads him to assume that criticism of an individual is an attack on the whole institution: it never occurs to him to compare himself with other agencies of government or with politicians, who are attacked far more, but without any real subversive intent. He does not find enough compensation in the fact that he receives roughly as many letters of thanks as of complaint.

Just how angry the police can get with their own failures, and with their critics, can be seen in the curious Recollections and Reflections of a Country Policeman, published, apparently at his own expense, by a recently retired policeman, W.C. May. He laments that we are not sufficiently stern to ‘our enemies the criminals’; he calls the National Council for Civil Liberties ‘an extremist political pressure group that fosters public disorder’; he despises ‘student leaders’ and ‘mealy-mouthed talk of the liberty of the subject’. What he admires in policemen is diligence, sobriety, punctuality: ‘the necessary intelligence,’ he says, ‘is easily acquired.’

But would our attitude to our policemen be different if their favourite reading was Sartre, Gide and Jaspers, and their hobby writing poetry? Michele Monceau’s Les Policiers Parlent, a most revealing collection of interviews with French policemen, contains a highly intelligent conversation with just such a man, which warns one against believing in national stereotypes.[3] This policeman said he interpreted his job simply as involving the maintenance of legality. There was no moral fervour in his clashes with demonstrators. He was not interested in politics, nor in the problems of the university (he had, however, read Mao’s Red Book, and thought it had interesting ideas, but no relevance). He accepted that in return for doing his duty many would hate him: one could not expect ideal relations with the public; ‘one develops a philosophy’ to put up with the imperfections of life. The Left call the police oppressive, but he did not expect they would abolish or even change the police system when they took power.

This is a view of the police as a necessary evil, a sort of moral rubbish collector. It implies that nothing much can be done to reduce crime, that victory is not be expected. This view gets unintentional support from the report on violence, Réponses à la violence, by the commission chaired by the present French Minister of Justice, Alain Peyrefitte.[4] It recommends about 105 reforms as being necessary before violence can be expected to diminish – from new kinds of urban planning to allowing children to leave school at 14, if they really hate it. It does not add that it will doubtless take about 105 years for all the desirable reforms to be implemented.

Is it possible to change things? Ben Whitaker’s The Police in Society is possibly the most balanced and best-informed study there is of the British force. It is packed with facts and opinions, taken from all political angles, so that it gives an excellent summary of all the conflicting arguments. It will be read by policemen and their enemies with almost equal approval, which is no mean achievement. Mr Whitaker is, no doubt realistically, cautious about hoping for fundamental changes. He urges more ‘communication’ between the police and the public – the wearing of personal name badges, for example, to emphasise individual responsibility; he hopes the media will do more to increase understanding of the police, instead of cultivating stereotypes; he wants the police to adapt more rapidly to modern conditions. Everything he says is sensible. There is only one thing missing: a sense of urgency – he is too practical to imagine that his book will alter anyone’s behaviour.

But that rapid change is possible was shown conclusively by the Japanese after 1945. Their crime rate has been falling steadily, and stands at half the level it was 25 years ago. Tokyo and the New York Metropolitan area each have about twelve million inhabitants, but the former has less than 200 murders a year and the latter nearer 2,000. There are five times as many rapes in the USA as in Japan, and 105 times more robbery. And Japan is, of course, much more crowded than the USA.

It is true that the Japanese have about 20 per cent more policemen per head of population than the Americans, and almost 50 per cent more than the British. But simply increasing numbers in our police forces would certainly not produce anything like the reduction in crime the Japanese have achieved. This emerges clearly from D.H. Bayley’s highly instructive book Forces of Order: Police Behaviour in Japan and the US.[5] The Japanese have not sought technological solutions – more sophisticated computers and more patrol cars – to what is an essentially human problem. The unique feature of their system is that their policemen are still village policemen – even in cities. They know pretty well everybody; each one has responsibility for about three hundred families. Foot patrols are regarded as the policeman’s first duty, and not just to show the presence of the law. The police talk frequently with pedestrians. Twice a year they visit every house in their area and note who lives there, their job, their age, the licence number of their car, what valuable property they have. We might resent such curiosity, and many Japanese radicals do refuse to answer. But the Japanese police on the whole succeed in being self-effacing; they avoid the swagger that typifies the American cop. They believe that they can win respect only if they sympathise with offenders and with anyone who is in trouble. Police stations have become places you go to if you run out of money after a night out: they keep funds ready to lend you, and you simply sign a register, promising to repay (80 per cent do). They will give you information about hotels; they will even help you repair your trouser zip. They will give advice on marriage, debts, landlords and contracts. They have offices for ‘Trouble Counselling’ and ‘Domestic Affairs’. In one area, a policeman made a list of people living alone, and rang them up – almost a thousand – to show they had not been forgotten. The Left protested that this was not his business, but the press applauded.

They arrest as little as possible. They have a higher than average level of education. They have far more discretion in the matter of prosecution. In the west, to treat people differently suggests corruption or unfairness. In Japan, the attitude of the offender after he is caught greatly influences how he is treated: if he shows contrition he is quite likely to be let off with a warning. To acknowledge one’s guilt implies both humiliation and an undertaking not to offend again. The Japanese understand forgiveness in a way the west, despite its Christian tradition, does not. They have even amended western fairy-tales – making Goldilocks, for example, apologise for her bad behaviour and the bear forgive her. The western view is that you must pay for your offence: if your life is ruined by it, too bad, you must go and rebuild it elsewhere. The Japanese behave as though people really can be reformed, and they do not believe that prison is the way to reform them.

They are, according to Professor Bayley, more lenient to speeding motorists than their western counterparts are, and prefer warnings to prosecution. The offender usually responds by showing contrition, and promising to reform. Such is his humiliation that the policeman has to change his role and offer consolation. This is partly a rite, but not entirely: the policeman is not seen primarily as a representative of authority, with the power to destroy you. The idea that he is almost a citizen like any other person prevails because the Japanese are not as suspicious of Special Constables as the British police are. There are Crime Prevention Associations and Traffic Safety Associations in which ordinary citizens perform semi-police duties, organise street patrols, erect signs saying ‘Beware of Pick-Pockets’ or ‘Beware of Lechers’. Professor Bayley recalls witnessing a car accident near a working-class council estate at 12.30 a.m. About twenty people of all ages emerged in pyjamas and underwear to clear up the debris and save the personal belongings of the driver. The contrast with New York was complete.

The Japanese police do not complain about judges or juries obstructing the fight against crime by being too lenient. They are amazed by the combativeness of American suspects; by the way the law connives at dishonesty by accepting plea bargaining, which misrepresents the nature of the offence; by the practice of putting up notices saying what fine you will have to pay if you throw litter or do not return library books – all of which suggests you can offend the community if you can afford it. The Japanese aim is not to exact punishment. Paradoxically, they seem to practise the Christian principle that forgiveness is given in return for repentance.

When the Japanese example is cited to show the west how it can reform, there is nearly always a mixture of truth and simplification: the reverse side of the picture is left out, and the disadvantages of their institutions – of which the Japanese are themselves very conscious – are glossed over. They would be the first to admit that they know how to be cruel and bureaucratic. But their idea of reconciliation as the proper ending for a drama is relevant. The effect of increased professionalism and more and more complex legislation is to harden official attitudes, and thwart the flowering of compassion. This is not a problem only for the police. Societies are constantly developing new types of regulation which cancel out new kinds of toleration. Individuals reply by seeking an ever richer Inner life.

That is where literature comes in. The novel has perhaps done as much as any social force to give individuals a sense of their individuality, and to explore the complexity of their emotions. I doubt whether modern love would be what it is without the literature that has analysed it. But the crime novel has remained an incomplete form: it normally ends with the criminal being caught and being led off to jail. What happens to him there? Why should one expect the police to show any more curiosity than the novelist? Prison officers themselves proclaim most prisons to be an ‘affront to human dignity’ (in Oxford jail today, three prisoners are kept in each cell, 14 by 7 foot, for 23 hours a day), but they go on ‘doing their duty’ regardless. That is possible only because compassion is still an underdeveloped sensibility. Western efforts at communication have concentrated on the family and particularly on the love of two people of different sex: understanding strangers, let alone criminals, is a long way off.

The latest Cambridge criminological study hits the ball back into the novelists’ court: it concludes ‘unfashionably but irrefutably’ that one cannot blame crime on social and cultural causes alone: personal characteristics play a large part; the puzzle of individuality remains entire.[6] But it shows also that ‘delinquency is a commonplace and normal form of behaviour for young working-class males.’ One can no longer treat crime as an abnormality, let alone as a leprous disease: but the police cannot be expected to behave on that principle until the public believe it too.

[1] Wiley, 1976.

[2] Harvard, 1976.

[3] Seuil, 1969.

[4] Presses Pocket, 1977.

[5] University of California Press, 1976.

[6] The Delinquent Way of life by D.J. West and D.P. Farrington, Heinemann, 1977.