London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan warned this week that the cost-of-living crisis may lead to an increase in violent crime in the capital. Policing – like every other twenty-first century public service – is replete with numbers that measure performance. The number of police officers working on the frontline; how long it takes for the police to get to the scene of a stabbing; the number of murders solved.
But if the Mayor is to have any chance of overseeing a reduction in violent crime in the capital there is one number that is more important than any others. He should ask himself how many people say yes to the question, “Do the police do a good job in your local area?”. In London that’s a number which has been consistently falling for the last four years.
The public’s confidence in whether the police are doing a good job is more than just a glorified customer satisfaction rate. It is central to whether the police can be effective at fighting crime and keeping people safe. There is a large body of evidence which demonstrates that where people have higher trust and confidence in the police they are more likely to come forward with information or intelligence, to obey the law, and to defer to police authority.
Behind the headlines of recent years there are trends that should be of deep concern to the leadership in City Hall and New Scotland Yard. In the three years between March 2015 and March 2018 the proportion of Londoners who answered yes to whether the police were doing a good job in their local area was relatively stable, at around 68 per cent. From March 2018 things started to head in the wrong direction, and in March 2022 only 49 per cent of Londoners answered yes to that question. Describing this precipitous decline as troubling is an understatement.
Explaining the collapse in the public’s apparent confidence in the police force is no simple task.
There is evidence that terrorist incidents have an impact on people’s view of policing’s ability to keep them safe. In 2017 alone we saw terrorist attacks at Westminster Bridge, London Bridge, Finsbury Park, and Parsons Green.
It is difficult to see how the murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021 and the revelations of the shocking behaviour of some officers based at Charing Cross in February 2022 isn’t having some weight as well. Also policing the pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for how the police engaged with the public.
All of these things have likely had some impact on the public’s confidence, but they’re not the main place we should be looking to explain the crisis in trust.
Firstly, in February 2018 the Met changed its local policing model. Where previously each of the 32 London boroughs had its own Chief Superintendent leading local policing, now each Chief Superintendent is responsible for between two and four London boroughs each. On average these individual Chief Superintendents are leading teams of 1,600 police officers. Each has a bigger team than a quarter of the police forces in England and Wales. Yet the forces outside of London have the benefit of being led by entire chief officer command teams. In policing, as with every other public service, leadership matters.
Secondly, over the last year alone the number of police officers and Police Community Support Officers allocated to neighbourhood policing in London’s wards has dropped by nearly 8 per cent. The data on what’s happened over the full four years isn’t readily available but that’s nearly 200 fewer officers – in a single year. And neighbourhood officers are those who work on building local relationships, knowing who the local offenders are, gathering intelligence and solving long-term crime and anti-social behaviour problems. The Met has more police officers than ever before – yet fewer are being allocated to these critically important roles.
Having overseen the precipitous fall in Londoners’ confidence in policing over the last four years, the Mayor has questions to answer and a job to be done. It is now down to the Home Secretary to choose a new Commissioner who can turn this around. Nothing matters more than identifying which candidate has the best plan to increase the number of Londoners who would say yes to the question, “Do the police do a good job in your local area?”. Priti Patel would do well to choose someone whose answer is focused on rebuilding neighbourhood policing in London.