Sathnam Sanghera: May the force be with you
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest City of London news every morning.
Walking through the City of London after work the other Friday night I helped a drunk on to a bus, ran through Liverpool Street train station looking for a potential suicide case, visited several licensed premises to make sure there were no bags left unattended and scampered around the Barbican in search of individuals behind a knuckleduster attack.
But before anyone starts worrying that I have been watching too many Steven Seagal movies, I should explain that I did all this while shadowing James Thomson, who during the week works for UK aerospace company Smiths Group, but at weekends spends time working as an officer for the City of London Police. The aim was to establish, first hand, the pros and cons of being a volunteer with the force. But I don’t wish to dwell on this for long. In short, if you can afford to give up 200 hours a year, and if you can face the prospect of strangers coming up to you and saying “it was him!” or “it wasn’t me!” or “here comes the strippogram!” every five minutes like it was the funniest thing since Muppet Treasure Island, becoming a special constable seems a worthwhile thing to do.
The more pressing question is whether the City of London Police, which is responsible for the Square Mile, London’s financial district, should continue to exist. Like Steven Seagal movies, the debate crops up often. Indeed, over time, the City of London Police, separate from the Metropolitan Police Service, which looks after the rest of London, has been subject to more merger speculation than even the London Stock Exchange. And with the home secretary currently pressing for amalgamation among the UK’s 43 police forces, the pressure has been intensifying.
On the face of it, those pressing for a merger with the Met, who include Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, have a point. The idea that the City should have its own police force seems, on paper, ostentatious, as ridiculous as an individual having their own amusement park or zoo.
But taking a look at the City of London Police at close quarters has persuaded me otherwise, not least because things seem to work pretty well as they are. While we did not find the suicidal young woman – she called 999 claiming to have taken an overdose in the railway station but did not leave a number – or the suspects behind the knuckleduster attack, the response of the officers to each incident was impressive. We were at the scene of the knuckleduster attack within a minute of it being reported over the radio, and when we arrived there were already several police vehicles and an ambulance in attendance. Frankly, this is exactly the kind of response I would want if I was knuckledustered or stabbed or bludgeoned to death.
Not that this is likely to happen: the City of London Police, established in 1839, and currently employing 850 officers, has had to deal with only five homicides in the past 90 years. And there are other reassuring statistics: the force has one of the best crime detection rates in the country; the City of London has one of the lowest crime rates in the country – at the end of this financial year it expects to have dealt with just under 8,500 crimes; and the force’s response times are consistently the best in England and Wales (it does, of course, cover a tiny geographical area).
Which leads to the main reason why the City of London needs a unique, dedicated police force: it is unique. As well as being the engine of the UK economy, home to several iconic sites, such as the Bank of England and St Paul’s, and a world financial centre, home to 481 foreign banks, the City has a residential population of just 7,807, which increases daily to well over 310,000 as commuters arrive at work. This creates particular problems. The City of London Police are rarely called out to burglaries and problems with anti-social behaviour are relatively unusual. Most of its attention is focused on terrorism and business crimes.
Unfortunately, most conventional British police forces are poor at dealing with the latter. A colleague writing on these pages complained only a few weeks ago about how protecting companies was generally a low priority for police. If you mention the word “business” when reporting a crime, you are likely to get the kind of response reserved for individuals reporting a missing DVD of Under Siege 2. But the City of London Police have a different attitude. For them business crime is a priority – the Home Office recently recognised the fact by declaring the City of London Police a lead force in investigating serious “economic crime”, the modern jargon for fraud, making the force responsible for the de facto national fraud squad.
There are other reasons why the City of London Police should be left alone: they have a good record of technological innovation; there is a high level of accountability between the force and the community it serves; they have rather lovely uniforms; and it surely says something for the model that the financial community in New York City, which has a (generally) single police force, is currently looking at creating separate arrangements for the business district. And finally, on a personal level, as a resident of a rough part of South London, I certainly appreciate the fact that when I walk through the City of London to work I get some respite from the fear that someone might cheerfully put a hole through my head just to steal the fluff from the bottoms of my pockets.
Get alerts on City of London when a new story is published