Patricia Gallan says inequality leads people to feel like they ‘do not have a stake in society’
One of Britain’s most senior police chiefs has intervened in the debate about rising crime, saying social inequality is a cause that needs tackling and that those arrested and jailed tend to be people with less money and opportunity.
The Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Patricia Gallan told the Guardian that “children are not born bad” and called for a wider effort to deal with inequalities that leave people feeling like “they do not have a stake in society”.
Gallan said: “I think we deal with the symptoms and the outcomes, but society at large has got to think about how we solve some of the other issues about what has been causing the crime in the first place. I don’t think children are born bad. I don’t believe that for one moment.”
She added: “If we don’t invest at the beginning we’ll have to invest in it in terms of criminal justice and in the prison system.”
Gallan leads Scotland Yard’s specialist crime and operations, spearheading the fight against gun crime, homicides and high-harm and high-profile crimes. She sits on the Met’s management board of senior leaders and is a key adviser to the commissioner, Cressida Dick.
Police chiefs have for years talked privately about the link between social inequality, poverty and crime, but Gallan commenting publicly is unusual and comes as she prepares to retire as a senior frontline officer.
She also said her race and gender meant she had faced extra challenges, but the police were a fairer employer than others.
Her comments are an attempt to kickstart a debate about the wider social factors behind crime, which is rising and driving law and order up the political agenda.
Gallan said her views were based on her experience first as the child of a church minister who saw the effect of poverty, then as a police officer over a 31-year career. She said she was offering “an explanation, not an excuse” for the deeper causes of offending behaviour.
“I think there are lots of causes of crime. This is a very personal view. If you start looking at where crime impacts, it happens in the poorest areas of society. Those that end up in the criminal justice system tend to be the people who have less money and less opportunity in our society.
“I think that is not good for society, for social cohesion, but also it is not good if people do not feel they have the stake in society. We have to look at and ask ourselves individually and collectively: why do people feel they do not have a stake in society?
“Because once you are involved in crime and once you go into the criminal justice system, it starts to get far more difficult for you, whether it is staying out of prison or getting a job.”
Asked about the link between poverty and alienation and people committing crime, Gallan said: “I think if you are a young person and you haven’t got opportunity necessarily – and this isn’t an excuse for it, it is explanation – what’s your risk? You’ve got a sense of belonging if you are in a group or a gang … and you get the material aspects that you would like, so that’s part of the challenge. We’re also a very instantaneous society now in lots of what we do.”
Gallan said police forces should look like the communities they serve. The Met is thousands of minority ethnic officers short of this, and Gallan said: “I am disappointed that we still look as we do. I think we made great efforts but then we collectively in policing and probably in society thought, well, we’ve kind of done that, and I think the problem is you can’t stop doing it, you’ve got to keep at it.”
She added: “If you see people look like you, there might be some understanding of what it’s like to be you.”
Gallan said the fallout from the Met’s errors in the Stephen Lawrence case, which led to the damning Macpherson report in 1999 that found the force was institutionally racist, had paved the way for people from her background.
“If it was not for Baroness Lawrence [Stephen’s mother] and the Macpherson inquiry, I would not be sitting here today,” she said. “We had a mirror held up to us, which many people didn’t like but was the truth in my view.”
Gallan said she had received extra abuse from the media and on social media because she was a black woman. “I do think there is an issue. Whether people agree or not with [the Labour MP] Diane Abbott, I think she’s spoken the truth. She’s spoken about people saying various things about her and targeting her because she is a black woman.
“If a man is direct that is fine and if a woman is direct people find it difficult. And if a black woman is direct they find it even more difficult. I’m pretty direct and straightforward. Not everybody likes that.”
Gallan said austerity had affected policing, and reduced police numbers and rising demands placed the Met under strain.
She served mostly in the Met in London but also in the Merseyside force. Gallan said her two biggest mentors were former Met commissioner Ian Blair, appointed under Labour, and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, appointed under the Conservatives.
She said she was leaving policing proud of the force and of her fellow officers. “I have great confidence in the police and I have great confidence in the Met.”