Policing needs a grown up conversation

30 July 2015

The head of the new National Police Chiefs’ Council has had a rough time since appearing on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show on Tuesday. The media fall out has been swift, with headlines shouting that the police will no longer attend certain crimes, including burglary.

The news coverage of Sara Thornton’s interview is, however, depressingly misleading. The former Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police did not say that forces should not be responding to burglaries. She said if the perpetrator had already fled then the police response time may be slower, but that “we will still want to gather evidence”, it just might be “in different ways.” This is an eminently sensible approach. Likewise her answer to questions on cannabis: low level personal use, she argued, is not a “priority”, but cannabis growing and dealing by organised crime most certainly is. It is, she said, about “responding in proportion to the nature of the offence”.

Importantly, she highlighted that crime is changing. Reform argued in “How to run a country: Crime and policing” that as police demand changes so too must the service operating model. Incidences of traditional volume crimes have dropped dramatically: in the decade between 2003-04 and 2013-14 theft offences recorded by the Crime Survey for England and Wales fell by 36 per cent, domestic burglary by 40 per cent and vehicle theft by 57 per cent. Yet England and Wales retains a model of policing designed to tackle these crime types. Thornton rightly said that forces should be “focusing on threat and harm and risk” and that protecting the public today means recognising that offending is increasingly happening in private rather than public spaces. In a previous blog I made the case that there “is a new frontline” for which the traditional neighbourhood policing model is inadequate.

This need for a new model was summarised succinctly in a recent blog by a serving Police Inspector:

“Gone are the days when police could concentrate on burglary and theft. Unpleasant though they are it is not these types of crime which are likely to lead to death, exploitation of children or serious injury. Crime has become hidden from view to the point where “volume crimes” now mostly take place in private in the form of domestic abuse or online fraud. No highly visible patrolling officer on foot can possibly hope to prevent any of it.”

Encouragingly, Thornton also made the case for a new policing model, saying that “random police patrol doesn’t in fact reduce crime”. Equally as encouraging is the fact that public confidence in the police has continued to increase despite a decrease in visibility.

Nonetheless, a challenge remains in how to adjust public expectations. Thornton called for a “conversation with the public” to establish police priorities. With 67 per cent of people reporting that television and radio news programmes inform their perception of crime, the media need to play a responsible role in this. Citizens also need to ensure they are taking reasonable steps to protect themselves and their property – both offline and online.

The NPCC Chair has helpfully started the public conversation she called for. Far from giving “a green light to burglars”, her comments reflect the new and necessary reality of building a police service fit for today’s demands. Politicians, commentators and policymakers should back her.

Charlotte Pickles, Senior Researcher Director, Reform

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