How should we use police targets?

Blog post

How should we use police targets?

The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee recently published Caught red-handed’, the scathing report of its inquiry into police recorded crime statistics. Among its many criticisms, the report was particularly damning of the use of targets, stating that they tend to affect attitudes, erode data quality and distort individual and institutional behaviour and priorities’. This came hot on the heels of a report from the Metropolitan Police Federation that also highlighted the problematic effects of using targets to drive improvements in performance.

If used in the right circumstances and in a sophisticated way, a small number of targets can be effective in improving overall police performance and focusing officers’ attention on particularly problematic issues. Targets around disrupting serious organised crime groups, for example, can ensure that resources are directed to this important and challenging area. There are, however, real risks that an over-reliance on targets or setting the wrong targets – can distort behaviour in unwelcome ways and produce damaging unintended consequences.

Targets that focus on processes and activities (i.e. inputs) rather than outputs or better still outcomes are particularly problematic. So, for example, a target to carry out a certain number of stops and searches is not as effective as a target that incentivises officers to achieve specific positive outcomes, such as finding and confiscating weapons, whether through stopping and searching suspects or not. Targets based simply on sanction detections, meanwhile, tend to encourage officers to focus on the lowest hanging fruit, arresting juveniles for smoking cannabis rather than tackling more serious crime.

Targets focused on reducingrecorded crime can also be problematic. One risk is that officer behaviour will be driven by achieving the target by other means than a real reduction in crime. For example, crimes may be wrongly recorded as a different crime type to ensure that it counts’ towards a specific target. This not only distorts the measurement of crime but can also damage victim satisfaction and undermine community confidence.

The police, and Police and Crime Commissioners, should therefore ensure that targets are used sparingly and intelligently, perhaps with more of an emphasis on improving community trust and confidence and victim satisfaction. These are better measures of police performance than whether recorded crime goes up or down or how many stops and searches or arrests are made, although they do present measurement challenges. But as resources become ever more scarce, it will become increasingly crucial to ensure that the police are working hard to deliver the best possible service to the public rather than chasing (often ill-conceived) targets.