Preamble: I have been reflecting this week on some findings from the Police Foundation’s research on police effectiveness in a changing world. These relate to current debates about the proper purpose’ of the police, and how the dominant narrative about this has changed over time. At present there is a clear tension between the Home Secretary’s view that the police service exists only to cut crime, and the range of demands that the public and other public services place on the police, not least as reflected in the College of Policing work on demand. That got me thinking about the parable of the blind men and the elephant.
An alien crash lands in a suburban park and soon finds herself surrounded by blue flashing lights and people wearing uniforms. “Who are you?” she asks. “We’re the police” says one of the people in a uniform. They help her to her feet and, as it is a wet and cold day, drive her to the nearest police station to warm up and dry off. The alien is naturally curious about this new world and these strange police’ beings, and each time she meets a new one she asks them what they are doing.
The first police officer she asks says, “I’m off to patrol the local community”.
The second says, “Someone has been reported missing and we’re going to try and find him”.
The third says, “I’ve just arrested a shoplifter and have brought her in to be interviewed”.
The fourth says, “I’m doing paperwork before heading off to a meeting to discuss how to keep some children safe”.
The fifth says, “The local hospital is treating a patient with complex mental health needs who can be a bit volatile, and they want us there just in case anything happens”.
The sixth says, “We’ve had a call from someone who is concerned about their elderly mother, so we’re going to her house to see if everything is ok”.
The seventh says, “Since you crashed your spaceship we need to secure the park and help manage the traffic that is building up in the area”.
Almost every time the alien meets someone new and asks the same question she receives a slightly different answer. Although some common themes emerge, she is confused and asks to be taken to the leader. She is duly introduced to the Chief Superintendent, who she tells about all of the things people have told her and how surprising it is that the police people all look the same but do different things. “Well” says the Chief Superintendent “there’s no real surprise, that’s what police work is helping to keep people safe and bringing people to justice. We never really know what the public will ask us to do next”.
Eventually as word spreads of her arrival the alien gets taken to meet someone called the Home Secretary. The alien remarks that she has met lots of police’ since her crash and is about to explain about all the things that they do when the Home Secretary interrupts her. “I’m sure they were all busy cutting crime, nothing more and nothing less“.
In 2012 80 per cent of officers’ time was spent responding to demand in order to protect people from becoming victims of crime, or to stop crime happening (for example, investigating reports of suspicious activity, dealing with missing persons etc). This was supported by the quantitative incident analysis: 90 per cent of incidents reported to police related directly or indirectly to crime.’ (p. 3 in Taking time for crime‘).
Gavin Hales, Deputy Director, the Police Foundation