Thanks to Greater Manchester Police and Twitter we now have a wonderfully colourful listing of the 3,200 odd calls they receive over a period of 24 hours. The sheer range of calls for assistance confirms what every police officer knows, which is that the police deal with so much more than crime. Hopefully someone will tell the Home Secretary.
But what this shows is not, GMP Chief Constable Peter Fahy suggests, that the police are the agency of last resort, but that they are actually the precise opposite – the agency of first resort.
Whether in doubt or not, people just dial 999. Cows blocking the road? Call the police. Man asleep in theatre? Call the police. Passenger smoking on an aeroplane? Yes, you’ve got it, call the police. Some calls are simply quite bizarre, like the reports of a man holding a baby over a bridge that turned out to be a dog that doesn’t like crossing bridges, a tent being erected on church grounds or builders turning up two months late (the last of these is par for the course I would have thought). But the GMP Twitter experiment also highlights a serious issue.
Because the police are vested with powers that can potentially impact greatly on the lives of citizens and their communities, it is imperative that they are trusted by the people they serve; without public support, they are at risk of losing the very legitimacy on which their authority depends. The GMP experiment shows how wide-ranging the work of the police now is.
The long term decline in public confidence has been accompanied by a rise in public expectations for protection which, despite historically high numbers, the police alone cannot possibly meet. Consequently, the police are increasingly spread too thinly, the gap between public expectations and what they can effectively deliver has widened and their legitimacy is, unsurprisingly, threatened. Maybe the recently announced spending cuts will actually have the unintended effect of forcing the police service to restrict their activities to core functions and halt the trend towards them becoming ‘jack of all trades and master of none’.