Waving a “large and deep-red warning flag”, HMIC’s 2016 PEEL Effectiveness report paints a distinctly pessimistic picture of policing in England and Wales. It also begs some important questions.
Local policing is being “eroded”, “basic things” such as proper investigations are not always being done, crime prevention “continues to deteriorate”, police visibility is falling, and the health of investigative capacity especially in CID departments is described as nothing less than a “national crisis” beset by a “severe shortage” of trained personnel.
HMIC’s assessment of the police response to vulnerability offers brief respite from this catalogue of concern, concluding that 14 forces have improved since the previous inspection, but even then it comes with a telling note of caution: “improvement has been at the cost of other areas of policing”, notably “reduced investment in local policing”.
This evidence of forces robbing Peter to pay Paul is perhaps the clearest sign yet that austerity comes at a price. The breadth of the police role, rapidly changing priorities and demand, finite and declining resources, and opportunity cost considerations, seem to militate against any but a small minority of forces being able to do everything well.
In the last couple of years, vulnerability has been en vogue while it seems clear local policing has been neglected and public protection demand has outstripped capacity. Now the microscope is being turned on local policing what will be next? Response times? Call handling? Burglary?
None of this will come as a great surprise to anyone who watches policing closely.
The report also raises the question as to whether it is any longer feasible for forces to meet the standards set with the resources available. This has big implications for the role of HMIC.
Take Bedfordshire, a force we at the Police Foundation know reasonably well after our five-year engagement with the policing of Luton up to 2016, a period that has seen three chief constables and at least three operating models.
In 2013/14 HMIC raised “significant concerns” about Bedfordshire’s response to domestic abuse, and then in 2014 said they were “very concerned” about rising response times. Both were then prioritised by the force, quite consciously at the cost of local policing, which was hollowed out.
Now Bedfordshire is being “commended” for their improved response to domestic abuse but being criticised for “not [having] put in place effective and consistent preventative community policing”, even while HMIC acknowledges ongoing funding and demand challenges:
“HMIC has found that in rightly focusing resources to protect its most vulnerable members of the community, the force has exposed its inability to maintain a preventative policing presence across Bedfordshire.However understandable the reasons for this might be, the consequence is that the people of Bedfordshire are not being well served by their police force.” (Emphasis added)
You can see the problem: context matters to the question of feasibility. Here the context is acknowledged but the criticism is nevertheless levelled and the feasibility question seems to have been ducked or ignored.
So, would a fully contextualised PEEL, cognisant of feasibility, look very different to today’s product? My suspicion is that it would. Given its history and current funding situation can Bedfordshire address all the issues identified by HMIC? I suspect not, through no special fault of the current leadership.
What about Humberside, another small force that has been repeatedly criticised over the past decade, where Justine Curran has recently and suddenly retired early from the position of chief constable, apparently having had enough? Is there anyone in British policing who could turn it around in a timescale of only a few years given its current funding levels and workforce? Could HMIC?
That links to a final question: who is the intended audience for HMIC’s warning flag?
Police forces graded as requiring improvement or inadequate hardly need another flag waved in their face, a view doubtless shared by their PCCs.
While HMIC’s appeal for national guidance and standards for local policing is presumably addressed at the College of Policing in the first instance, my strong suspicion is that HMIC is really trying to catch the attention of the Home Office and Treasury, both of which need to understand that all is not well in policing.
A new police grant funding formula sits waiting in the wings, ready for its grand unveiling, with consequences for winners but especially losers I’ve heard the figure mentioned of 20 per cent reductions in grant at the extreme end. Meanwhile, government departments are beingtoldto draw up proposals for savings of three to six per cent post 2019/20.
For policing as a whole, but especially for some forces, difficult decisions are only going to get harder. Whatever the PEEL process may imply, not everything can be a priority.
The Police Foundation recently published a paper on neighbourhood policing and police effectivenessin the face of 21st century policing challenges,one of a series of papers from the Foundation’s Police Effectiveness in a Changing World project.