This article was first published in ‘Policing Insight’ a few weeks ago… with thanks to them and @NathanConstable for allowing us to republish here in an open forum.
You know the words – you’ve heard them often enough. Like a song that’s played too often on the radio – you know they are coming and you may even find yourself reciting them back in a voice laden with sarcasm.It is not unusual to find politicians “sticking to the message” but this is one which has been used by a succession of policing ministers and the Home Secretary to the point where it now looks like the Home Office just copy and paste it into every response. It is actually ridiculous to think that at least three people have used identical words in reply to numerous questions over a period of years. It doesn’t matter what the particular question is, or how specific or detailed it is, it can easily be brushed aside with the following words:
“Police reform is working and crime is falling. There is no question that the police will still have the resources to do their important work.”
In actual fact, the phrase “crime is falling” has dropped off the script in the last 12 months and has been replaced by something along the lines of “overall, crime has fallen by 20% in the last 5 years.” This has necessary as, actually, across a range of offences and particularly in relation to violent offences, crime appears to be rising. But, fortunately, when you add up all the crimes which ARE counted, the total still appears to be lower than it was in 2010.
Except that many crimes aren’t counted. Fraud being the most obvious and when this is added to the figures in the coming months it is likely to add a huge amount to the overall total. It will be impossible to use the “crime is falling” line in any way at all and so we can all reasonably expect the predictable
“This apparent rise in crime can be attributed to recent changes in recording methods.”
This is partly true but when you think that this crime has ALWAYS been there, it has just never been added to the overall total then that statement begins to look a bit hollow. As does the “crime is changing” narrative which makes it sound like this is something which has just started rather than a process that probably began about a decade ago.
“Police reform is working” is a statement – a statement without evidence and this is particularly obvious when the quote is used at the end of a long article which suggests the opposite. Whether it is about falling satisfaction rates in the police, closure of police stations, concerns about the complete eradication of entire neighbourhood policing teams, all PCSO’s being made redundant, it is almost a non-sequitur to see the “police reform is working” line as the one and only response from government.
It is a counter statement which was originally in two parts “police reform is working and crime is falling”. It invited you to believe that there was a direct correlation between the two aspects. Crime is falling BECAUSE of police reform. This ignores the fact that crime has been falling worldwide for almost twenty years and scientists and sociologists are still trying to work out why. Someone has even suggested that there is a correlation between falling crime and the removal of lead from petrol. Proving causation is another matter but I think we can all be pretty clear that crime is not falling because of reforms to the police.
As one Chief Constable once put it “If crime is falling then why are the police so damned busy?”
This leads us back to another quote from the Home Secretary about how police should be “single minded crime fighters” and that the police mission is to “reduce crime – no more – no less.”
In order to try and understand the levels of demand on police in the 21st century, the College of Policing (the very instrument set up by the Home Secretary to ‘professionalise’ the police service and determine ‘what works’) set about obtaining national data which, when analysed, suggested strongly that about 80% of incoming police demand was not crime related at all.
When this was presented to the Home Secretary as evidence she refused to accept it. It must have been like having your first homework given a D by the teacher. It is not exactly clear on why she refused to accept it but it did lead to some interesting articulation on what “crime” is and how it is possible to be a “crime fighter” when dealing with a range of policing issues which would have historically been classified as “non-crime.”
This revelation simply does not fit the political narrative. You can’t be a single minded crime fighter if 80% of what you are being asked to do is unrelated to that task. Unless you contort ways of making it sound like it fits.
I have blogged about this previously but it really doesn’t bode well for the much heralded era of Evidenced Based Policing if the evidence can so easily be dismissed and ignored.
The question is “is police reform working?” There is plenty of information out there which suggests that perhaps it isn’t or that it isn’t working as well as is being made out. Finally, the newspapers (particularly local ones) are alive with lots of outraged editors and people bemoaning the cuts to local policing. Is that evidence of police reform working?
The main answer I have heard to that specific question says that we now have elected Police and Crime Commissioners who are making the police more directly accountable and there has been a bonfire of bureaucracy which has freed up hours and hours of police time.
The police may now be “more directly accountable” but officer and staff numbers are falling and police stations are closing and being sold off. If you look purely at the statistics of police performance it suggests that the situation has worsened rather than improved since PCC’s were first elected – recorded crime appears to be rising, the number of crimes being detected is falling and complaints against the police are increasing. No doubt some would argue that this is down to Police and Crime Commissioners encouraging people to come forward and people are now more willing and confident to do so – but I wonder if there is any more evidence to support that assertion than there is to say that, actually, there is simply more crime and people are unhappier with the service they received.
What is more, before any evaluation has been completed into the effectiveness of Police and Crime Commissioners, and before the issue of low voter turnout and apathy has been addressed; even before the end of their first term of existence, plans are on the table to extend their role to oversee the Fire Service as well. A mammoth and complicated task for just one individual which could dilute and divert their attention from the police and crime aspects of the role.
To twist the words of Descartes, it appears to be a case of “They exist – therefore they work.”
As for reduction in bureaucracy – as a serving police officer I see no evidence of this whatsoever. If anything it continues to get worse. Even more so now that the work which used to be done by support staff, who have been made redundant due to budget cuts, is having to be done by officers themselves.
Actually, the question isn’t “is police reform working” – the question is “what is police reform trying to achieve? If the objective of police reform is simply “a much smaller and less visible police service” then things are definitely on the right tracks.
The final part of the script is “there is no question the police will still have the resources to do their important work.” With the Comprehensive Spending Review looming it cannot have escaped the notice of anyone working within the world of policing that the service is facing further cuts of between 25-40%. If the latter comes to fruition then by 2020 the police service will be roughly half the size it was in 2010.
Now, if this doesn’t raise at least ONE question about the future financing of the police then I might as well give up now. To say there is “no question” is simply wrong. There are many questions and they are being raised daily by PCC’s, Chief Constables, Borough Commanders, response Inspectors and officers on the front line wondering how long it will be before there aren’t enough people to go around any more. The newspapers are beginning to ask “why did it take so long?” “where has the neighbourhood team gone?”, “where are the helicopters?”, “why are all the police stations closing?” “Why is knife crime rising?”
Believe it or not, these are ALL questions. They may be being asked five years too late but they are being asked now so there are very many questions about whether the police still have the resources because people are seeing evidence to the contrary and are asking why.
Finally we come to “important work.” Government insist there are no questions about whether police have the resources (even facing another 40% budget reduction) so what is this “important work?” We know that the Home Secretary does not accept that 80% of incoming demand on the police is not crime related as I have already explained that she rejected the College of Policing evidence so what is the definition of “important work?”
There isn’t one and nobody will provide one.
The Police Federation have been requesting a Royal Commission into policing for years and this has been ignored. Even The Telegraph has now come out and said it thinks one is necessary. The police role has morphed hugely since the service was first conceived. Crime has changed, society has changed and police work has become increasingly complex and subtle. There are some who believe that police should return to simply walking the beat and anything else is mission creep. This is all well and good until you see what those who hold the police to account, the IPCC and HMIC, are saying the police should be doing.
In the meantime, demand isn’t slowing up. There is no evidence at all that other agencies are picking up the slack because they are being cut as well. The police continue to be “Plan B” for everyone else ranging from social services to care homes to the NHS.
If the “important work” of the police is to effectively act as society’s ultimate backstop then let’s have that made clear. If the expectation is that police will be expected to plug gaps and act as paramedics when there are no ambulances available on a daily basis then let us say so. If police are to continue to act as the de facto response to people in mental health crisis then announce it. If police are to be the only people responsible for looking for teenagers in care who fail to return home four times a week or the patient who has discharged themselves from hospital with a cannula in their arm then I think we’d all sooner know.
As other services are being cut it is pushing even more work towards the police. How much of this is “police work” and how much of it is “important”? More crucially, how much of this is important to the primary police function, as outlined by the Home Secretary, of reducing crime – no more – no less?
Just look at this all again. The Home Secretary has said she expects the police to be single minded crime fighters with one mission. Evidence has been presented which states that, actually, a lot of what the police are being asked to do really doesn’t fit that description and that evidence has been dismissed. Which means it won’t change. Which means that the definition of “important work” pretty much means “everything you are doing now.” With roughly half the resources.
It is actually pretty easy to pick the script apart but the worst aspect of this whole thing is that the script doesn’t change. Senior police officers up and down the country are highlighting the potential and likely consequences of budget cuts. They are talking about what the police might not be able to do any more. They are trying to start an open, honest and transparent dialogue with their communities and the country as a whole about huge changes to what policing looks like and what it can do.
This isn’t “planned police reform” this is “responsive police reform.” How can it be anything other when the Policing Minister himself said, at a fringe meeting on policing at the Conservative party conference last week, that he has “absolutely no idea” about whether a 40% cut to policing is sustainable. It isn’t being driven by any notion from government on what policing is or should be it is being entirely driven by simple financial reality. This is all the money we have been given – this is what we can do with it.
The warnings from senior figures in the police are stark and bleak. They are talking of policing having to fundamentally change and the current range of services being unsustainable.They aren’t crying wolf either. They are trying to be honest and up front.
It is hard to do this when, whenever an article is run or a specific and detailed story hits the news which suggests that things aren’t going so well or that the public should be aware of something they are met with the same standard, copy and paste, statement-as-fact, “that’s all you’re getting” response from the Home Office stating that “The plan is working and the police will continue to have enough money.”
It is tiresome, repetitive and it looks increasingly shaky as more details and examples of the effects of reform and cuts begin to show. It sounds like an annoyed parent who won’t give in to an incessant child. What is more, because it is so predictable, so obvious, so “every time”, so “didn’t the last person say that as well” that it now seems dismissive and it suggests that the Home Office hasn’t taken any notice and simply isn’t listening.
This is a shame because right now – they really and urgently need to be.