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Competitive Policing Is a Terrible Idea

Priti Patel is reportedly drawing up plans for police force league tables. It's a market-logic method that's been shown to reproduce inequality elsewhere – and risks making police brutality even worse.

When it comes to crime, Home Secretary Priti Patel prides herself on tough talking. ‘I want criminals to feel terror,’ she once declared. Given the widespread corruption and casual disregard for human life among her party and political colleagues more widely, her efforts, many will feel, are misplaced.

Her latest proposal follows the same misguided pattern. The Home Office recently told police chiefs that it is drawing up league tables ranking forces on their success in cutting serious crime. The measures would supposedly provide ‘national accountability and collective responsibility’ while supporting and challenging forces. Forces will be judged on their ability to reduce homicide, serious violence, drug supply, neighbourhood violence, and cybercrime. They will also be measured on victim satisfaction.

National benchmarks will be based on traditional data such as recorded crime, as well as new measures including the number of police referrals into drug treatment programmes and hospital admissions for youth stabbings.

The logic of league tables is symptomatic of the concept of competition, which has been creeping into our public services from the private sector for decades. Under the neoliberal orthodoxy, competition is one of the defining characteristics that buttresses the idea of meritocracy: to play organisations off against each other is to demand they prove themselves, rendering any subsequent inequality an inevitable part of the ‘game’ – the natural cycle of winners and losers.

That rationale is problematic, not just because it erroneously assumes that there’s a level playing field—in this case, for those being policed—but because competition in itself repeatedly creates and reinforces inequality, while justifying it to the outside world. The ill-fated use of competitive league tables in the education and health sectors is testament to this problem.

Since the first publication of school league tables in the early 1990s, educational inequality has widened significantly. The top league positions are not necessarily dominated by the ‘best’ schools, but rather by the schools that educate the highest number of prosperous and therefore high-attaining pupils. Research conducted by Bristol University shows that when social and economic factors are taken into consideration, the performance of the state grammar schools that regularly top the tables is actually no better than any other school.

There is a well-established link between poverty and educational attainment – one that the pandemic and the challenges of home-schooling crystallised. For example, in the most deprived schools, 15 percent of teachers reported that more than a third of their students learning from home would not have adequate access to an electronic device for learning, compared to only two percent in the most affluent state schools, according to the Sutton Trust.

League tables effectively penalise schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged children, rather than factoring in the tremendous effort schools often put in to support vulnerable pupils. This leads to stigmatisation, and an ensuing domino effect which makes it harder to recruit staff and leaves schools in a constant cycle of stagnation, with pupils and parents demoralised. With any basic analysis, the idea of meritocracy quickly rings hollow.

Additionally, the current system of allocation to state schools based on area and housing price is inherently discriminatory. Parents with capital have the ‘choice’ of purchasing houses in catchment areas and consequently having greater access to those better-performing schools; underprivileged families, meanwhile, are priced out, and their access to preferable schools diminished.

For as long as competition between schools exists in this capacity, access to good quality services will only be available to those on the elevated rungs of the social class ladder, in what is a fitting microcosm of life in neoliberal Britain.

The situation is no better in health. The NHS recently began publishing league tables to measure the performance of surgeons, including their patients’ survival rates – a move designed to give patients more choice and allow them to elect an operation at a different hospital if they have concerns.

But the concept of ‘choice’ is deceptive. The alternative for superior hospitals is likely to be within private healthcare, something exclusively available to those with the funds. Once again, where league tables and rankings enter the equation, the highest-quality services are reserved for those with wealth, while the remainder is left for those without.

It’s hard to imagine things being any different for the police force. The move has already been fiercely criticised, including by cops themselves, who have warned league tables would prompt the ‘return to a damaging, target-driven culture’. League tables were previously introduced by the Labour government in 2007, and then scrapped after opposition from the Police Federation.

Indeed, target-driven cultures in policing have historically resulted in an excessive focus on particular crimes and the overlooking of others. At a time when the abuses practiced by the police are a topic of national concern, expecting them to operate with a competitive edge will only make things worse.

Data shows police in the UK still use force and stop-and-search powers disproportionately against black and Asian people and people from other ethnic minority groups. In the year to March 2020, ethnic minorities were more than four times as likely to be stopped and searched as white people in England and Wales – with the figure almost nine times higher for black people specifically.

Black people were also over five and a half times more likely to have force used on them than white people. This points to an institutional culture of racism, contrary to the conclusions of the government. High levels of crime are a symptom of socioeconomic inequality – meaning the attempt to solve the former by intensifying the latter by overpolicing will only result in a vicious cycle.

To demand that public services operate along market lines is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of those services. The success of one school or one hospital should not be dependent on the failure of another: rather, the entire system should be invested in supporting the population as a whole. And for an institution that has repeatedly shown itself to have little interest in the wellbeing of those it claims to ‘protect’, the imposition of competition only offers another justification for abuse – for the protection of the few at the top of the social ladder, at the expense of the many at the bottom.