What are the police for?

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Related Themes: Governance, Police resources

What are the police for?

London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime recently published a report in which he (together with Blair Gibbs) sets out MOPAC’s vision for the future reform of policing. In it he seeks to shift the focus from the recent spate of structural reforms introduced by the current government to the role and function of the police. It has echoes of Sir Ian Blair’s 2005 Dimbleby Lecture, which also asked the question: What are the police for’?

Leaving aside the unfortunate sequencing issue of defining form before function, the headline conclusions are largely uncontroversial: the police and the public need to be clear about what the police are there for which, the authors suggest, should be primarily to reduce crime,maintain public order and prevent terrorism, while working in closer collaboration with a broader range of partners. But to achieve this, the authors argue that the police should pull back from some of the social protection’ functions they have accumulated over decades of mission creep’.

The list of functions they say the police might drop include: dealing with missing persons enquiries, guarding suspects in hospitals, responding to online abuse and threats, policing sporting and other public events, taking the lead role in managing serious offenders, transporting mental health patients and supporting their partners in safeguarding their client groups. While there may well be some functions that the police could shed, the thrust of their argument is confusing in places and has implications that should raise concern

Often, the social protection and safeguarding work that the police do is crime prevention or contains elements of it. Finding a young missing person is, potentially, preventing a case of child sexual exploitation. Providing a strong police presence at a busy public event can deter pickpockets. Guarding or escorting a suspected criminal or a dangerous or vulnerable individual may prevent them committing or becoming the victim of a crime. While others might be able to deliver more of this activity, drawing a clear line between preventing crime and protecting vulnerable people is certainly not clear-cut.

Even when there is no obvious or immediate crime prevention dimension, the overlapping and mutually reinforcing needs of the most vulnerable individuals in society, who tend to be the focus of this more social’ police work, mean they tend to be the same people most at risk of being involved in crime whether as victims, offenders or both. To prevent them from becoming victims and/or offenders, the police need to work closely with their partners to address these needs. Well-functioning front-line partnerships recognise this group of people and work tirelessly to address their troubled (and sometimes troublesome) lives, often in addition to fulfilling their statutory responsibilities.

Collaboration at the coal-face relies on a shared understanding that even though this might not be my problem now, if I don’t lend my weight, it probably soon will be. Thus even where the police put more into multi-agency partnerships than they get out (because they tend to be more can-do’ and are comparatively resource rich’), they still get something out. Retrenchment to core functions is already happening; if the police join the retreat others would quickly reciprocate, undoing years of hard-fought progress.

The impact of the recent cut-backs has only just begun to be felt. The vast pool of increasingly unmet need would be greater without police back-filling’. In all local communities there are important social protection and safeguarding jobs that need to be done and demarcation disputes essentially arguments about who does what merely serve to undermine effective attempts to do so. Where these jobs fail to fall neatly within one public service’s remit, the first public service remains the last line of defence. It is testament to their resourcefulness, flexibility and integrity that this is a role the police do willingly and well; we should think twice before asking them not to.