Views From The Frontline: prevention rather than cure

8 February 2017

Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, is often quoted as saying: “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it”.

It seems inarguable that a life saved is better than a murder solved, a burglary prevented preferable to the work needed to recover a family’s sense of security in their own home, or a community thriving preferable to the need for search warrants or closure orders to shut down a property being used as a hub for drug dealing.

Yet policing remains culturally and institutionally focussed on reacting to crime rather than its prevention. There have been, and continue to be, attempts to shift the service towards a preventative mindset but policing remains some distance from where we need to be.

To genuinely move policing towards prevention rather than cure will require a cultural shift and the taking of some tough decisions.

Leadership

Our ‘command and control’ style of leadership may well be appropriate for the genuine crisis, but for day-to-day working, where locally implemented innovation and creativity could enable the needs of an increasingly complex society to be better met, a different approach is required. A shift from the ‘leader knows best’ approach to a ‘team of teams’ approach would enable those genuinely working on the frontline (in the main the most junior ranks in policing – Constables and Sergeants) to deliver preventative partnerships at the practitioner level. Partnerships at that level can have a real impact on the quality of life of those living and working in a community and are at least as important as those partnerships operating at a strategic level. Police officers need to be given the flexibility and training to create those partnerships with a reward structure that benefits those that are most effective at delivering them.

Resources

Policing needs to consider where resources are best applied and potentially take some tough decisions. Are more police officers and increased budgets really where we should invest our limited public service resources – or do they represent resources taken away from other frontline services, such as mental health and education, which might prevent problems in the first place? In terms of where we deploy the resources that policing does have, most officers still start their careers on emergency response teams and remain in reactive roles for the bulk of their careers. If we are to see mindsets change careers should start in and, in the main, remain focussed on the prevention and problem solving generally delivered on local neighbourhood policing teams.

Technology

Policing, along with so much of the public services, continues to fail to maximise the potential of technology to make a real difference to people’s lives. Systems exist, which if fully implemented and integrated, could lead to more intelligent deployment of limited resources, thereby increasing productivity. Yet failures of implementation, and in some cases an unwillingness to adopt the full range of systems available, is preventing the policing profession from achieving what might be possible.

A friend recently reminded me of a quote by Bill Clinton: “There is nothing wrong in America that cannot be cured by what is right in America”. Similarly, there is nothing wrong in policing that cannot be solved by what is right in policing – now is the time for tough decisions and a cultural shift which would see prevention rather than cure being our focus for the future.

David Spencer is the Chief Executive of Police Now and was a police officer with the Metropolitan Police Service for thirteen years until 2016.

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