What are the police for (now)?

What are the police for and how can they best achieve their goals in an age of austerity and social change? These were the questions at the heart of Chief Constable Sara Thornton’s stimulating John Harris Memorial Lecture this week, hosted by the Police Foundation.  The lecture by the new Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council possessed both breadth, covering most of the big issues facing policing, and depth, drawing on a number of emerging strands of thought about the future of public services.

The lecture challenged us to address the purpose of policing. What are the police for? This is not the first time this question has been asked, but until now we have generally avoided answering it. During the days of ever expanding budgets such existential questions were best left to the criminologists. Today the scale of the financial and social challenges facing the police mean that addressing this question is now a matter of operational urgency.

A cornerstone of police work is to reduce crime, as the Home Secretary famously noted. However, the remit of the police has always extended beyond that to include wider notions of keeping the peace, protecting the public and being on hand as the public service of last resort.  The fact that 78 per cent of calls to command and control centres do not result in a crime being recorded shows that the public, de facto, see the police as more than just crime fighters.

While most people believe the police should have a broad purpose, there is less agreement on what should be prioritised and how such a purpose can be fulfilled in the world as it is now.  This not just about money, it is also about the changing nature of demand on the police.  Traditional volume crimes like burglary and vehicle theft have fallen to historic lows, while digitally enabled crime is booming and there is huge public concern over under-reported crimes such as domestic violence and sexual crime.

The police face not just the patent demand that they can see, but also the latent demand they cannot.  The explosion of online bank fraud does not show up in the recorded crime statistics. We know that child sexual exploitation is horrifyingly common, but until now most of it has been unreported. If we agree, as I think we should, that policing should be about harm reduction as well as crime reduction, which harms should the police prioritise? And if we want the police to proactively seek out harm and prevent it, rather than simply react to the harm that presents itself, how is that feasible when the police will have lost 70,000 posts over a decade?

Ms Thornton’s lecture sketched the outlines of a way forward.  First, the police must understand demand, including that which is hidden, that which is systemic and that which results from failures by the police and other agencies to get things right first time. In looking at demand the police need to consider the ‘whole system’, encompassing the chain of events that lead to things presenting themselves at the police station.

Second, we need to consider what kind of capability is required to respond to that demand. This means a different kind of police workforce, with the skills and knowledge required to deal with more complex crimes, such as those that take place online and those perpetrated against vulnerable people.  But it also requires broader public service re-design: if we are to reduce harm, what mix of workers, organisations, technologies and community-led initiatives are required? As Ms Thornton argued this is not just about ‘multi-agency working’, but is instead about end to end re-design of public services, including the development of fully integrated multi-disciplinary teams. The police have a broad purpose, yes, but it is a purpose they share, and can only fulfil, with others.

Third, an important enabler of this approach, at least as regards local as opposed to cross border crime, is devolution. The creation of Police and Crime Commissioners devolved police policy out of the Home Office and into the cities and counties. However, the next wave of devolution, in which ever more parts of public services may be devolved to city regional mayors could help to unlock the kind of ‘whole place’ thinking required.

Two areas the Chief Constable perhaps understandably avoided were governance and structure. However, re-orienting policing to meet these new challenges will require bold moves there too. If we are to see the greater integration of the police into wider community safety work locally, while at the same time developing a national capability to deal with non-geographic crime, the current structure of the police service will become increasingly unviable.