- Our Work
- The Reformer Blog
22 May 2015
The public have demanded a major shift in the role of the state. The police should respond by removing ranks.
Aberaeron is a small Welsh seaside town. For some years it was served by a mobile police station, parked near its colourful harbour. It attracted little more than quizzical looks from passing tourists.
Local officers decided to move it. They parked near the school instead, half a mile down the road. In just a few months, they received information on three cases of child neglect – one resulting in the removal of children – and a cannabis farm. They now have a regular stream of visitors.
Over a year ago I signed off four new mobile police stations. These are basically mobile offices. They replace existing vehicles, which look more like something designed for riot control than welcoming public service points.
Our new vans are about to arrive, so I am told. This follows years of various “user-requirement stakeholder groups” to determine, well, the user requirement. By my count, a simple purchase decision passed through five ranks before reaching an overworked Chief Inspector’s to-do list. There it disappeared from view, like a coin settling at the bottom of a pond. No one seemed able to reach it without stirring up a cloud of previous decisions.
These examples reveal two truths about British policing. The first is that local neighbourhood officers usually have the answer. A good constable with the freedom to decide can solve just about any local problem. The second is that no answer is so simple that police officialdom cannot make it incomprehensible.
You do not have to look very hard across the country for more serious examples of management failure. Systematically fiddled crime figures, rogue behaviour in undercover units, the iniquities of stop and search, inexcusable failures to know what was happening in grooming gangs: all are symptoms of distant leadership and muddled managerialism.
Police leaders do not know enough about what their officers are up to. Often they cannot. Too many people’s careers depend on telling them that all is fine. This is not because officers in middle and senior ranks do not want to make things work. They do. It is because, put simply, there are too many of them.
Britain has just voted for a significant reduction in the state. That will have profound implications for all public services. Parliament will shortly demand further savings from police budgets. How do we respond? We can only make savings with further reform to match the scale of what the public have asked. That reform should remove entire ranks.
Fewer ranks means more officers at the coalface. The public want local bobbies, not because they are irrational and nostalgic, but because they recognise a timeless truth at the heart of our police tradition. Preventing crime requires officers who know what is going on. And that requires good local relationships, which only local officers can provide.
Quite apart from saving money, removing supervisory ranks will free up decisions further down the chain. If you do not have a retainer of eager subordinates to pass work to, you do it yourself. Or you prioritise what is important.
Last year we surveyed the Dyfed Powys workforce. We scrapped targets in 2012. But frontline officers still tell me they exist because middle managers build them back in. None of this is surprising, or unique to Dyfed Powys.
Police and crime commissioners, acutely conscious of the public’s demands as we face our elections, will insist on prioritising the front line. We, with chief constables, can go some way to deliver what is needed. But demands from government for further big savings must come with stronger tools.
Legislation specifying that each force must have three ranks of chief constable should be scrapped. Officers’ terms and conditions need to become more flexible. Police leaders need the power, subject to proper restraints, to make officers redundant and to recruit the skills they need.
The jewel in the crown of our police tradition is that it derives its strength from the people it serves, not the state. As the relationship between state and citizen changes, that tradition will be more valuable than ever.
Policing is done by officers who answer to our laws. They are citizens in uniform and they depend on us. They cannot themselves be in every house or on every street corner. But through us they can. And we all share the same duty to uphold our laws. That is the jewel: policing by consent.
Thirty years of fiddling in Whitehall has erected bureaucratic barriers between local bobbies and their public. Money which could put boots on the ground instead puts bums on management seats. What the public see is a thinner blue line and a fatter organisation. They do not like it.
Fewer ranks saves money for more constables. They can solve the problems in towns like Aberaeron or cities like Cardiff or London. Bold change is now inescapable but the principles remain the same. Give local officers the tools and get management out of the way. It can be done.
Fewer ranks and more constables. The public have set Parliament its challenge. Shortly they will expect answers from police and crime commissioners and their chief constables too.
Christopher Salmon, Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Commissioner