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Policeman talking to a man outside the arrivals lounge

West Midlands Assistant Police Crime Commissioner Tom McNeil is also a PhD student within the School of Social Policy. Tom talks to Social Policy Matters about the human side of his work and study: balancing the personal with the political, putting policy into practice, and persevering in the face of constant public scrutiny.

…Trying to make my daughter laugh. I give my dog, Columbo, a cuddle, then read the news from several different sources to help me understand how people with different political leanings might interpret a problem. If there’s anything the public would expect our office to comment on — by way of assurance or otherwise — then I speak with the communications team. Caffeine and emails come next.

My days are incredibly varied, but a typical day might include: providing strategic input into a proposal for criminal justice reform; attending a formal partnership meeting such as the Birmingham Children’s Partnership, aimed at addressing child hardship in the city, or a strategic board focussed on a specific challenge such as the Family Drug & Alcohol Court Board; meeting with the Police & Crime Commissioner to support him and agree new strategic priorities; meetings with senior police officers either in the form of a briefing as part of the PCC’s holding to account function, or agreeing shared policy agendas as a more collaborative aspect of the job; and attending community events.

My day ends with feeling a bit worried about whether I’ve forgotten anything, whether we’re making progress on certain issues quickly enough, whether I’ve offended anyone, and then being distracted by tasks such as washing my daughter’s reusable nappies. But then I remember what an immense privilege it is to be in this role, and how lucky I am to have a lovely family to spend my evenings with.

My parents divorced when I was young. I moved to from Balsall Health to Kidderminster and then to Bewdley in Worcestershire, which was a complete culture shock compared to Birmingham — far less diverse, more socially conservative, aesthetically unrecognisable, and in Bewdley, greater affluence than I’d ever seen.

I found going to university to be a profoundly anxious time. I studied a BA (Hons) combined social science degree at Durham, focussing on philosophy/political philosophy, psychology and ethics. Though I loved my studies, I suffered from a significant inferiority complex for a good deal of the first year, and felt insecure about everything from my appearance, to my accent, to my intellect, to my prospects — all due to the well-polished nature of many of Durham’s student body. Eventually, I realised a lot of the confidence I saw in my peers was a veneer, and realising we were all kids trying to grow up was the comfort I needed.

After completing an MPhil at Cambridge, followed by legal training, I became an EU and competition law lawyer. I was fascinated by the economic theory underlying regulatory infrastructure. Later, I worked with charities. Though I’m really proud of my legal work and have great respect for the profession, I prefer thinking about issues in a holistic way and trying to create new ideas. For my personality, the law felt constraining.

Along the way, I’ve engaged in lots of volunteer work which really got me thinking about connecting policy and practice. I’ve been a Special Constable, independent visitor for Barnardo’s, Non-Executive Director for the National Union of Students, and Advisory Board Member for the Institute for Community Studies at the Young Foundation.

I left the law to become the strategic adviser to the previous West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner. The role saw me engaging with the public to hear their frustrations and nuanced perspectives, and sitting on executive public sector boards. As an Assistant PCC now, I get to do all of this, but with renewed freedom and influence.

Ideologically, crime is still viewed as a matter of free will and choice, so many still believe punishment is a fair consequence. This prevents us from seeing the solutions far more likely to keep us safe. I want to change this.

While our country needs significant investment across the range of public services, there are things we can do to improve what we’re already working with. Currently, the justice system can be complex and inflexible (i.e. only seeks to address a substance misuse issue, when we know one might also be dealing with their own historic abuse as a child). Vulnerable people are being passed around agencies, making their challenging lives even more fraught.

My PhD title is ‘The cost of crime and deliberative democracy: a persuasive frame for ‘supportive’ crime prevention in an age of austerity.' Being completely honest, given my existing commitments, doing a PhD now was probably slightly daft of me. But there’s never a ‘right’ time. I’m in this remarkably privileged position to try and affect tangible change; I want to make sure that I’m as informed as I possibly can be. In my position, it would be irresponsible to rest on my laurels.

My PhD has reinforced my underlying beliefs on the causes of and solutions to crime; namely the role of issues such as experiencing poverty and domestic abuse in childhood in contributing to the ingredients for committing crime later in life. However, as importantly, it has given me greater confidence in the ability to win the argument — and therefore the mandate — to transform our criminal justice system away from one too often focussed on punishment.

Given current social challenges, we have a significant degree of child abuse, domestic abuse and other horrific crimes. The police service is under immense strain; we need more officers. We should also be comfortable congratulating the vast majority of officers and staff (many of whom are not white) for their bravery. Many officers suffer PTSD, some even die on duty. Some of the narrative around the police has therefore been unhealthy at times.

That said, historically, the police have been institutionally racist, and I have concerns about issues like racial bias in stop and search, use of force and the criminal justice system today. Reform is required. There is also clearly a significant public trust issue around the confidence women have in reporting abuse or issues such as sexual harassment, assault and rape to the police, and we clearly have more to do to challenge sexist culture, address violence against women and girls in society, improve the criminal justice system’s handling of sexual offences and do everything we can to make women feel comfortable coming to the police when in need. The Black Lives Matter movement has also been powerful for platforming a conversation we still need to be having about racism in society, and sadly may need for many years to come. My late grandfather came from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation, and I wish I knew what he’d make of all this. He was proud to be living in Britain, but he was brave for seeing the world that way — I know he experienced racism here, as has my father.

Instead of four years, I have three, and the shortened timeframe impacts on what I can deliver. Given the scale of the challenges we face, it isn’t realistic to expect a wholesale change in the level of public trust. However, we can make some serious headway, including how rehabilitation packages are put together for people in court, how we build on interventions in the community that are more likely to prevent reoffending, and how we tackle major issues for school aged children to prevent crime later in life.

As a result of PCCs, I believe there is more local visibility and accountability to how the police force is governed. A democratic mechanism — like an election — is vital for legitimacy because it demands that individuals in leadership positions express their political opinions on vital issues and present a vision for how things should be. I think it’s right that PCCs are elected. I remain open minded about how we improve our democracy (as one would hope from my PhD topic!). We should be exploring ways of making representative democracy healthier, and based on truth. We’re a long way off from that.

In a challenging role like this, a sense of doing something worthwhile is what makes the workload sustainable. You also have to laugh at yourself a bit (there’s an uncomfortable amount of self-promotion built into the job, and if you don’t stop to notice that and giggle, you’ll morph into the people you hate). Don’t lose sleep if you can’t change the world in a day (or a year), and don’t take things too personally. Anything that puts you in the public eye, even a little bit, risks attracting criticism.

Exercise helps me. I’m an enthusiastic runner, and without it, I don’t know what I’d do.

A better criminal justice system is one that adequately invests in the real causes of crime. Recognising this requires one to see human action as a symptom of society. Looked at this way, punishment can be cruel. I’d never belittle the emotional drive for vengeance or retribution, and people who have committed callous crimes must be made to go on a journey to understand the deep damage caused to other people by their crimes. A move away from punishment doesn’t mean an easy route for people who have committed crime, but one which takes the challenging steps to address the inner turmoil, anger or coldness that causes crime and reoffending. Ultimately, the goal is to prevent victimisation and create safer communities. It is not just about prevention in the traditional sense.

Find Tom on Twitter at @mcneil_tom.