Fewer police officers doesn’t necessarily mean a rise in crime

July 3, 2012

The latest report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary gives a cautiously optimistic assessment that although police forces are reducing officer and staff levels to cope with budget cuts, the frontline is being protected and “fundamentally the operating model of British policing is unaltered”. This is good news, but inevitably in the debate around budget cuts and the police response to the August riots, the claim is repeatedly made that fewer police will inevitably mean a rise in crime in the years ahead. However, this is very simplistic, and a lot of evidence suggests that even with fewer officers, there are tested ways of deploying cops to keep crime down.

The relationship between crime rates and police resources is complicated. We know that significant crime spikes tend to follow a total absence of police – as evidenced by police strikes in several countries. But marginal changes in police numbers paint a more complex picture, and the macro experience seems to disprove the notion that there is a simple link between police numbers and crime rates.

From 2002 to 2007, countries such as Denmark and Canada (in common with the UK) saw a fall in crime alongside a rise in police numbers. However, the United States saw a fall in officer numbers over this period and a fall in crime. Meanwhile Sweden and Spain had a rise in police numbers alongside a rise in crime.

The UK experience, as outlined in the Policy Exchange report Cost of the Cops, is also instructive. We conclude that those claiming that crime will inevitably rise as police numbers fall are ignoring a recent lesson from history: two-thirds of the total fall in crime between the 1995 peak and 2011 (as measured by the British Crime Survey) occurred before police numbers started to rise, telling us that other factors are clearly at play.

The prevalence of crime is driven by many complex factors – police numbers being just one. This is not to say that the police cannot have a major impact, but it is commonly accepted that enhanced security measures such as engine immobilisers – rather than police tactics, let alone officer numbers – can largely explain the collapse in vehicle crime since the 1990s. Opportunities for crime and the extent of social control in communities can be major drivers of crime, as can the number of active, prolific criminals who are at large (hence, the incapacitation benefit of prison for certain offenders).

Even the issue of police numbers is nuanced. As we saw in the London mayoral election, debate is too often about the number of officers employed, and the headline number is media shorthand for capacity, but what really matters is how many of the officers are actually deployed and how effective they are.

Some key questions need asking. How many warranted officers are in non-policing roles, far away from the public? How many officers are in no position to reduce crime and make arrests because they are on recuperative duties doing clerical work? Because they are trained professionals and not robots, it matters more where police are and what they are doing, than simply how many are on the payroll.

We know the best tactics and deployment, such as targeting high crime hotspots, can dramatically cut crime (without displacing it elsewhere). We also know that short-term, highly visible deployments that swell police presence in a given locality can also cut crime, as was evidenced in the wake of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in central London.

Research by Lawrence Sherman shows that smart, preventative police deployment can be effective at reducing crime, compared with just a general increase in police numbers, which may actually have no measurable impact. New technology, when well utilised, can also free up officer time and make the police more effective, thereby achieving the same impact without additional staff.

Just because there is no clear and simple relationship between police numbers and total crime levels does not mean that there is no relationship at all. But if there is a link between officer numbers and crime rates, it is not direct and it is probably outweighed by deployment, and by more specific factors at play in a local area.

The decade of police funding expansion is over, and a decade of austerity is under way. The criminologist George Kelling – who came up with the broken windows theory – has argued that despite budgetary pressures (much worse in America), only investment in community policing can keep crime falling.

Fortunately crime levels are lower than a decade ago and although there are signs that this decline may be slowing in England and Wales, it is not credible to assert that we are about to see a crime surge, let alone that any increase is being caused by a fall in officer numbers.

The task in the decade ahead will be for police forces to spend more wisely and invest in policies – like neighbourhood policing – that help prevent crime, while finding more effective ways to deploy the officers they have.

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