Police reform, there’s rightly more to come

28 May 2015

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at the Police Federation’s annual conference as part of their “Question Time” panel on “The Political Challenge”. The conference theme was “cuts have consequences”. My message was further budget reductions are possible with reform. I wasn’t the most popular person in the room. However despite the sceptical – and at times hostile – response, I found it a hugely valuable experience, and the Police Federation should be commended for inviting dissenting voices. Perhaps the most rewarding part of my trip to Bournemouth were the multiple invites I have received from attendees to visit them and join their officers on patrol. The officers were completely correct that policymakers must hear from the frontline – and I am confident that on my visits I will hear practical ideas for improving policing.

Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed in her conference address the following day that “[t]here is no ducking the fact that police spending will have to come down again”. She echoed her longstanding belief that “it is possible to do more with less” – something the past five years appear to have proved right. Reform has long championed police reform and supports the Home Secretary’s call for further efficiencies. In my opening comments to conference I highlighted three areas of focus for police reform in this Parliament, all of which could contribute additional savings.

Firstly, there needs to be a big focus on productivity and capability. This requires a much more detailed understanding of the demands on police time – not demand in terms of incidences, but the day to day allocation of police time. Only by understanding this can forces seek to eliminate unnecessary processes and activities, or seek to improve or streamline them. One area with significant scope for improvement is the connection between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Numerous officers complain of the hours spent on calls or waiting around for CPS activity to be completed. Equally important is the need to ensure the police service has the right capabilities to meet changing demand. This means a workforce with the right skills mix. Police, politicians and policymakers need to stop talking about frontline officers and start talking about the police workforce – responding to cybercrime puts back office police staff on the ‘frontline’ and analysts are essential to predictive policing.

Secondly, these need to be underpinned by technology. This is not a silver bullet, but it is a fundamental enabling tool. Automation and pre-population of forms save time, mobility technologies enable officers to spend more of their time protecting the public and digital capability such as voice and face recognition can help in both preventing and detecting crime. Perhaps most fundamentally, ensuring the interoperability of systems across forces and across other criminal justice agencies (such as the CPS) is essential. As is sharing data across public services – this is the best way to understand risk and ensure that appropriate interventions are in place to prevent, in particular, high harm crime.

Thirdly, and following on, much greater collaboration is need within the public sector. There are encouraging examples of this across the country, but as HM Inspectorate of Constabulary have pointed out, collaboration “remains patchy, fragmented, overly complex and too slow”. Much has been made of the opportunity to deliver efficiencies through economies of scale, but more important are the potential improvements in outcomes. A better understanding of risk, improvements in the sequencing of interventions and a multi-agency response capable of addressing the often complex drivers of high harm offending. This, ultimately, is about demand suppression.

The Home Secretary concluded her speech by inviting the Police Federation to “to work with me”. The alternative, she was clear, is continued reform without their input. I hope the Federation takes her up on this offer.

Charlotte Pickles, Senior Research Director, Reform

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