Here in Britain we seem to police everything except crime. Yet some signs suggest that things could change. Andy Cooke has been named the new chief inspector of constabulary, with responsibility for overseeing the operational procedure of all police forces in England and Wales and making recommendations for improvement. Cooke clearly wants to send a message, telling the Times in an interview, “We’re not the thought police.”
This should come as a welcome relief to Britons, who, for the best part of two years, have endured state interference in their liberty. During Covid, the police were out in force, harassing citizens and quizzing them over their daily routines. When they weren’t in LGBT rainbow-adorned police vans yelling at passersby with megaphones to go home, they were patrolling the streets, breaking up gatherings of six or more people, or fining people upward of £10,000 for violations of lockdown protocols. Now it seems almost quaint to hear a police official talking about serious policing. The very fact that Cooke felt the need to make this statement—in his first interview since getting the job—shines a light on how bad English policing has become in recent years.
Cooke seems keen to push back, or at least to be seen pushing back, against the over-policing of “non-crime hate incidents” (NCHI). Between 2014 and 2019, the police recorded more than 120,000 such incidents. Though these are non-criminal actions, they are registered with the Disclosure and Barring Service and can affect future employment prospects, as they appear on background checks for job applications. As with their hate-crime counterpart, no objective evidence is required for the police to record an NCHI—only the subjective declaration of a witness that “hate” was somehow involved.
The now-infamous case of Harry Miller brought NCHIs to the public’s attention. Miller had an NCHI recorded against him after he posted a limerick online that was critical of transgender ideology. A member of Humberside police also called on him to “check [his] thinking.”
Cooke seems to be aiming to change all this. Chief constables, he says, must “avoid politics with the small p,” and he has reminded people that it is not an offense to have “different thoughts.” This was not the message sent out by police in Merseyside in northwest England last year. They rolled up outside a supermarket with a huge digital ad-van ominously warning the public that “being offensive is an offence.”
“Policing is busy enough dealing with the serious offences that are going on, busy enough trying to keep people safe,” Cooke told The Times. Yet official statistics show that the police have not done much of this. Home Office figures published in The Independent show that around 6 percent of all crimes resulted in a charge last year, equivalent to just one in 17 offenses being solved. This falls to 5 percent for burglaries, while just 1.3 percent of rapes resulted in a charge.
It would be wrong to blame all this on the police. While they deserve criticism for spending an inordinate amount of time and resources going after noncriminal acts, they are burdened with enforcing some of the world’s worst speech laws. A 2017 Times investigation found that nine people each day were being arrested under the Communications Act for posting offensive messages online.
I hope that Cooke is serious. It should go without saying that in a liberal and democratic country such as Great Britain, the state should not be policing thoughts. But in a Britain increasingly captured by identity politics, what better way to signal that you are au courant with the latest cause than by demanding a clampdown on free expression? Progressive ideology turns everything upside down: by enforcing censorship, you can appear liberal and progressive.
Time will tell if Cooke stands by his pledge. We should judge him by his actions, not his words. It’s time for Britain to police the streets, not the tweets.
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