The media talking points from the latest HMIC inspection of police force effectiveness have all been about on the numbers of bobbies on the beat’. This is because the topic has cut through’ the public like the idea of Dixon of Dock Green style policing and headlines declaring that it is under threat grab the attention of readers and viewers.
HMIC’s findings in this area are important: neighbourhood policing is a vital part of our policing model and the fact that it has been cut back and even disappeared in some areas is a real concern. However, for me the most interesting theme running through this HMIC report is the fact that the police are struggling with an enormous shift in demand.
The inspectorate found that while most forces were good at preventing volume crime and dealing with traditional’ forms of serious and organised crime, the majority require improvement when it comes to dealing with new or previously hidden threats of harm. For example, the report found that while forces tend to have a good understanding of organised crime groups that are involved in activities such as drug dealing and theft, they generally know much less about the networks involved in people trafficking, child sexual exploitation and cyber enabled fraud. This is also a strong finding from new Police Foundation research to be published later this year.
Underlying the negative findings on the quality of investigations is the fact that crime has changed but the police workforce has not adapted accordingly. So, for example, HMIC identify long back logs in extracting digital evidence because of a lack of specialists. They found that many specialist units are overloaded meaning uniformed officers are put on cases even though they lack the training required.
Most forces were found to require improvement in the area of protecting the vulnerable. The rise of mental illness, the growing concern about the abuse of children and vulnerable adults and the need to manage increasing numbers of sex offenders in the community are posing a major challenge to the police. HMIC found that although there has been the successful adoption of multi-agency working’ to safeguard children and vulnerable adults, we know very little about the conditions under which such working is effective. This is something we have also found in forthcoming research into police effectiveness. It is not enough to say we are talking to each other’ or we have a partnership arrangement in place’. There is currently an alphabet soup of multi-agency partnerships, but there is very little evidence around what such arrangements are achieving.
These criticisms need to be taken in the context that 1) the police have done well to stay on top of the traditional bread and butter’ issues at a time of diminished resources and 2) in any area of public service it is always the new and the less familiar that pose the greatest challenge.
However, the scale of the shift in demand on the police, driven by technology and social change, is such that policing faces a particularly acute challenge. The College of Policing reports a quadrupling in fraud offences in a decade and a 40% increase in the number of reported contact child sex offences since 2013. Research suggests that in some forces as much as 20% of incidents the police deal with could have a mental health link and that public safety and welfare’ incidents make up a larger category of incidents than crime or anti social behaviour. This is not marginal, it is core. It cannot be relegated to the work of niche specialists but requires a radical change in the standard operating model of policing.
While public debate tends to focus on a concept of neighbourhood policing born before the internet, we should really be discussing what we expect police officers (and others) to do to tackle these new and more complex patterns of crime, harm and vulnerability.