I recently spoke at a panel discussion at the Police Federation Conference. At that event one thing became very clear – some members of the audience believed that respect/listening and agreement are the same. They are not the same. We should admire them for the work they do. But respect does not equate to saying that I will never disagree with any spokesperson for the Police.
Let’s just clarify what respect means – I respected my father, an ex fire officer, more than I have, or probably will, anyone else. I did not agree with everything he ever said nor did he expect me to. He was not so thin skinned or unable to accept constructive criticism that he interpreted any disagreement as a sign of disrespect. In fact, I have come to regard polite honesty as one of the highest forms of respect.
The panel included Katy Bourne, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, Jack Dromey MP Shadow Minister for Policing, Kevin Hurley Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner, Steve White the Police Federation Chairman and Charlotte Pickles Senior Research Director at Reform. It was chaired by Krishnan Guru-Murphy. Each made important contributions but I need to answer some of the more dubious points that were made.
Three myths were touted. First, that Policing is a service which cannot improve its productivity each year by doing more/the same for less. Second, that public spending would not have had to fall whichever Party was elected. Third, that crime is increasing rather than falling. Now I would agree that crime is not low. It remains high. More must be done to bring the crime rate down. But it is simply false to say that in the past five years crime has not fallen.
The Home Secretary heard a lot about Police morale. The audience believe that it is low. I have a suggestion on how it might be improved – shout from the roof tops that Police Officers have significantly reduced crime at a time when their budget has fallen. Police Officers have done more with less. We expect them to continue to do so and they can. This is down to their hard work – the Police have done a great job.
But this morale boosting message would have detracted from the theme of the conference – cuts have consequences. The consequences the Police Federation envisages are not that better public services will be delivered at a lower cost. Instead some seem to think that an anarchic free for all might occur where crime goes unpunished because there are not enough Police to tackle it. This simply is not credible and indulging this view does not help.
I was invited to remark on the challenges and opportunities the Police force face. I did not join in the council of despair. I offered practical ways the Police could meet the current policy challenges. Some of which are outlined below. The Police could, and some do:
- Share their physical estate with other public services. Selling public land and ploughing the money back into frontline services. The public do not benefit from the Police occupying old buildings that are expensive to maintain and that bring the victim and crime suspect in to the same, or a similar, physical space – the Police station.
- Invest in technology that could prepopulate a lot of the forms the Police have to fill in. A lot of Police work involves continually dealing with the same people. Filling out a criminals arrest form for their tenth offence, as if this was the first Police encounter they have had with the Police, wastes time and money. It stops the Police doing their job. It also reduces the number of errors the Police make when filling out paperwork.
- Share administrative support with other emergency services or contract this out to the private sector. Not every person employed by the Police force is a frontline Police Officer. Having a single control room for the three emergency services is not the end of the Police service as we know it. In fact, it is the kind of sensible reform that it should not take a budget shortfall to get the Police to introduce.
- Increase incentives for individual Police Officers to prevent crime. Unfortunately, crime prevention does not get the average Police Officer a promotion, solving crimes that have been committed does, as many Police Officers have informed me. The first principle of Policing, as outlined by Robert Peel, the father of British Policing, is that the Police are there to prevent crime and disorder. Intelligent Chief Constables will implement reforms to rectify this. Prevention is less expensive than the cure – it saves money and it serves the public better. We don’t want to be victims of crime in the first place.
- Ensure that different crimes are dealt with at the right level. A significant amount of crime has moved online. Tackling it will involve developing new close relationships with experts who don’t wear a Police uniform and never will but who can contribute enormously to Police work. The new types of crime have created a need for new national specialist bodies to meet their challenge. We must ensure that we do not create territorial battles between them and local Police forces that waste money, duplicate work etc. This will take a while to bed down.
I issued a note of caution. Prevention is a better way of reducing the demand for Police Services than simply writing a list of everything the Police force does and saying we won’t do a lot of the things on this list anymore. Unfortunately, I have heard a number of Police Officers adopt this approach of reducing the number of things they do. As I said – the public don’t want the Police to do less, but to do more with less. This is why Police reform is so important. Some Police forces are doing this, those that are not can learn from them.
Of course this was not the kind of morale boost some of those present wanted. They wanted to hear that money could be conjured up from somewhere. They said – what do you get with less? But this implies that the Police force was at a maximum state of efficiency many years ago and any effort to encourage innovation is misplaced. People who suggest this need to be treated with respect but told they are wrong and, importantly, why they are wrong.
As I said on the day – the Police can lead the discussion about how to make cost savings and make practical suggestions that save public money and help them do their job better. Alternatively, they can watch while the Police service is reformed around them. I would prefer to hear Police Officers make sensible suggestions that inform the debate. Telling people they can’t talk about Policing if they are not a Police Officer is wrong. Why is it wrong? Sadly, it needs explaining.
First, it assumes that all Police Officers think the same way. They don’t. Some were kind enough to approach me afterwards to let me know they agreed with my comments or at least appreciated that I had come to make them.
Second, it insults the public that the Conference attendees say they serve. Everyone has a right to comment on Police policy because we live in a democracy and all taxpayers pay the salary of the Police. It is the arguments made and not who makes them that should be challenged and held to account.
Would it destroy the Police service to share their offices with other emergency services? Would the Police as we know it die if some of the admin support was provided by a specialist private company at a lower cost? Would it be impossible to do the job if when you picked up some local crook for his sixth offence you just looked up his name or took his photo and it pre-populated the whole arrest form with all his personal details? I think these savings will make the job of the Police easier and better and they save money – a win-win for the public and the Police.
I celebrate the work of Police Officers – they want to provide the best service for the public. Those who shout the loudest do not necessarily represent the Police Officers that quietly do the job. Some have invited me to see how their Police force is managing to make the difficult decisions that the spending reduction requires. I really appreciate their engagement and, in some cases, support. I do respect the Police Officers that commented in the debate. This is why I responded as a critical friend. I said what I thought they needed to hear – not what some of them wanted to hear.