Policing must do less but with more of the whole system

19 June 2015

Reform’s paper How to run a country: crime and policing outlines the key areas government should look at across the policing system. “What” government should focus on invites a complimentary comment on “how” we can approach reform.

Francis Holl’s 1873 sketch, “Deserted -The Foundling”, still evokes the timeless features of British Policing; the offer of protection legitimised by compassion and connection with communities.

There is no question the next five years pose major challenges to retain a balanced model of policing whilst meeting the twin challenges of budget reductions and a society changing at an even faster rate than in Holl’s times. Perhaps simpler times offer clues to the future.

We can cut through the seemingly endless debate on structure and models in search of simplicity. Three principle levers will inform how cuts can be made and services sustained: how much demand we have to meet, the method we use to meet it and the standards of service we provide.

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The National Audit Office report this month indicates more work is needed to understand demand. This is underway through the College of Policing and within many forces. This insight is important as it enables policing to become far more upstream and preventative in how it approaches high demand people and places. Big data and more effective use of analytics and evidence-based practice are unlocking the potential to look at problems in new ways with different solutions. Asset-based approaches to engaging the public in creating safer places offer real long term protective opportunities. As demand is switching from traditional acquisitive crimes to violence (personal and sexual) or the consequences of mental health the levers for demand reduction are increasingly beyond the boundaries of the police. This will require adaption towards defining problems and commissioning solutions with partners as opposed to tactical deployments. We have to do less but with more of the whole system. In Holl’s day, the era of municipal civic development spread public services in towns and cities. Today devolution offers many opportunities to de-nationalise areas of the state such as justice and health to close the gaps and hand offs.

Police productivity can improve. A surprisingly low amount of actual incidents and crimes are managed per officer each day in most forces and this is not though a lack of effort! There will have to be a much stronger grasp of actual activity, more modern approaches to work and better use of technology to make work not just more efficient but a more straightforward, modern and pleasurable activity. We can and should be using information with greater pace and velocity to direct operations in real time.

The police service is not an island. Many of our activities are defined by law, regulation or the expectations of others. From kennelling dogs pending destruction, three hour waits for charging decisions, and public misconduct hearings, to new vetting policies and the desire to record traffic stops, cost is increasingly being built into policing processes. Some of this is unavoidable, such as the growing requirement to manage foreign national offenders, but too little consideration is given to the financial and cultural impact of change on the police. With increasing budgets allocated to HMIC and the IPCC to inspect and investigate the police it is becoming difficult to increase risk appetite in forces at the very time it is required. If we are serious about police productivity, the Government needs to create a more mature way of managing risk, and develop a serious agenda to simplify and reduce the cost of policing regulation.

We are still poor at understanding our actual service levels. The average burglary victim may still deal with the response officer, the forensic examiner, the investigator and the local neighbourhood team – all offering fractions of the total service provided. A tighter understanding may help us refine where real value is added in our interactions. The public are now far more digitally adept and able to play a stronger part in how we work. New technology is more than just how they report crime. Statements can be provided, neighbourhood concerns shared and active roles can be played in developing services. Digitalisation can reduce cost and shows strong evidence of offering high satisfaction and legitimacy benefits. In the West Midlands 16-24 year old people have the second highest confidence in policing. How much of this is because our legitimacy is derived from how we are seen to operate in social media?

Finally as Holl’s picture shows, policing is a very human business. The last five years have left many in the police feeling over criticised and undervalued. Further reductions in spending may be unavoidable and there remains much that can be done to reduce cost. This must, however, be combined with a far more supportive and trusting approach to the service and its people by politicians, police leaders and those who inspect and investigate. People engaged in delivery must play a bigger part in change from top to bottom. As can now be seen in the United States, when the police feel untrusted and disenfranchised, the remarkable actions and human qualities that are priceless in our police can become a casualty.

Dave Thompson, Deputy Chief Constable, West Midlands Police

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