The past few years have shown that, while police resources are vital, it is possible to increase effectiveness in the context of a tighter budget. Between 2010 and 2015 the police budget in England and Wales was reduced by 20 per cent but the crime rate has continued to fall. The question is, are there simple ways of saving money from the police budget while maintaining effectiveness, or have these all been achieved?
There are six key areas where we should be looking to the police for reform.
First, the police estate is very valuable but it is poorly utilised and not fit for purpose. For very sensitive cases, like rape, police stations do not operate as they should. At present, for example, the police station brings both the woman reporting a rape (a victim) and a male being arrested for an assault (a suspected criminal) into the same building. This can lead to appalling stress for the victim. Furthermore, many of these buildings were built in the 19th century and they incur high costs to maintain. More police forces should conduct a full audit of their physical estate, selling off underused and high cost facilities.
Second, different forces will need to undertake a rational analysis of whether police administrative employees are undertaking tasks that might be performed cheaper or more effectively by private sector companies. While politicians like to point to overall police numbers to show they are being tough on crime, there is no automatic link between the numbers of people employed in the police and the effectiveness of the police. Clearly we need a substantial police presence but the shape of the workforce and how they are deployed matter more. Not all officers are bobbies on the beat. Many work as support staff and whether they work in police uniform or for a private company does not really matter.
Third, the police need to rethink the way they use technology. Detective Sam Tyler in the BBC drama series Life on Mars is transported back to 1973. The attitudes, hairstyles and dress sense are very different. However, the life of an officer forty years on still involves filling out paper forms by hand. These then need to be stored to be typed up later on. More police forces need to invest in the technology to allow an officer to speak an arrest into a phone or take a photo of the alleged criminal and use facial recognition software to pre-populate their arrest forms. Each of these changes reduces the bureaucracy that stops Police Officers doing their job.
Fourth, local democratically accountable police forces should prioritise crime prevention. This is what the public want: not to be a victim of crime. The first of Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement was this: “the basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.” Intelligent chief constables should consider how to incentivise younger police officers to view success at crime prevention as the key to their career advancement.
Fifth, technological developments should continue – and this will strengthen the case for stronger national crime fighting bodies. The internet has created new types of crime. For example, some criminals have stolen other people’s online photos to construct fake profiles which they then use, without leaving their home, to defraud people across national boundaries. Some “old” crimes have just migrated online – for example, stolen property is now sold online rather than out of a van, but the nature of the offence is unchanged. New tensions will emerge between the local police forces and bodies such as the National Crime Agency about how to meet these threats.
Sixth, the police will need to consider how to collaborate better with the other emergency services. If you were designing the most effective way to respond to emergencies you probably would not exactly replicate the three emergency services we now have. For instance, you would have a single control room so when someone phones 999 they would be dealt with by one person who would coordinate the response of the fire, ambulance and police services. At the moment, in many areas, 999 callers are referred to the three individual services. Northamptonshire police and the fire and rescue service show how some frontline services could also be jointly delivered. They are trialling a joint fire and police vehicle operated by an officer and a firefighter. Expect more such collaborations.
While the economy is improving, austerity is here for a while yet. It is an impetus to rethink the way the police deliver their service and the best forces will not fear it.
This blog originally appeared on The Times’ Red Box website