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Viewpoints: How should the police best use limited resources?

  • 6 September 2013
  • From the section UK
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Police officers standing in ranks

The police face pressure to maintain and even improve the service they provide while working under increasing financial constraint. How should they make the most of limited funds?

Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester Police (GMP), said on Wednesday that his officers were only able to concentrate on about 40% of reported crime, although he stressed this was standard practice for investigations with no line of inquiry.

Nevertheless, the GMP has faced cuts of £145.5m in the four years to 2015, with officers falling by 19%.

And last week a London Assembly report claimed that crime in London is higher because the Metropolitan Police's technology is "out-of-date, ineffective and expensive to maintain".

Scotland Yard responded that it faces "a huge challenge" in updating its technology while facing budget cuts.

So in the face of shrinking budgets, how should the police best utilise limited resources? Experts give their opinions below.

Ruth Davis, research fellow at Policy Exchange

With 3.7 million crimes committed last year it is inevitable that the police will have to prioritise where and how they focus their resources.

Firstly, considerable savings could be made by partnering with the private sector. Lincolnshire Police and a private sector firm is one example of a public-private partnership performing effectively. In the first year the force managed to save £5m - the equivalent of 125 police officers - by taking a new approach to call handling and incident management, and by streamlining Lincolnshire's police custody suites.

Secondly, police forces can use technology to be increasingly smart in tackling crime. Using predictive crime modelling, Kent Police is now able to identify potential crime hotspots and concentrate officers in those areas. Initial reports show street violence has fallen by 6% as a direct result. Moving all cases onto a digital platform will also enable officers to cut down on form filling, maximising efficiency and visibility.

Finally, the police can no longer afford to pick up the slack so much where other agencies fail. Cheshire Constabulary found that 40% of calls on police time were caused by the failure of another agency to act. Pilot work to address failings in areas like mental health, such as street triage schemes, are being rolled out in many police force areas. These partnership approaches need to be extended to other areas and agencies that impact upon police time.

Javed Khan, chief executive of charity Victim Support

The police are our closest partners in the criminal justice system. They refer 1.5 million victims and witnesses of crime to us every year, and we have huge admiration and respect for the very difficult job they do.

We all need to make tough choices in response to shrinking budgets and the police is no exception - it is up to them to prioritise investigations and decide how best to target criminals. But the quality of service police provide to victims must be maintained, or preferably improved.

One of the biggest issues for victims is how well the police keep them informed about their case.

If you are a victim the minimum you want and deserve is to know what is being done to investigate the crime. If the case is closed due to lack of evidence it is essential the police explain properly that decision to the victim.

A lack of information can fuel dissatisfaction with the police as much as anything else and it can lead to victims and witnesses walking away from the justice system.

Ultimately, victims want to be listened to and they want to be treated with respect. That should never be an issue of resources.

Damian Green MP, minister for police and criminal justice

The key is releasing each individual officer to spend more time doing the job they joined the force to do, instead of filling in forms, sitting in the station, things that have happened in the past.

One of the keys to releasing that time is much better use of technology. Police officers say to me that it's ridiculous that in their daily lives - like everyone else - they can use smartphones for a whole range of activities, and yet when they're at work, they find themselves stuck with old-fashioned technology.

People are still photocopying and faxing. Introducing technology, in a much more systematic way than we ever have in the past, that allows the police to have all the information they need on the street about individuals, to transmit reports electronically so that you create a digital case file [immediately after] an incident, which can then be used right through to the court case - that releases huge amounts of police time, so that every individual officer will be much more efficient than before.

Crime prevention is absolutely vital in this. [Crime has] been falling for a number of years, and those measures that help crime prevention - like making cars more difficult to steal - mean that the police have more time to deal with the crimes that are still being committed.

And the effect of that will be to allow them to spend more time out doing the sort of neighbourhood policing that the public really wants, that's what they really value.

That's the future vision of policing that I see.

Ch Supt Irene Curtis, president of the Police Superintendents' Association

It's important that the police focus resources on the areas that present the most threat, harm and risk to the public, dealing with issues that are ultimately police responsibility. This means ensuring that other agencies are taking full responsibility for issues under their remit.

For example, it's thought that about 25% of response officers' time is spent dealing with people with mental health problems. More often than not, they've not actually committed a crime. Or if they have, there's a huge influence from their state of mental health.

If the health service were to do more to reduce the number of people from suffering from mental health issues, then the police wouldn't spend as much time dealing with what are essentially vulnerable people and not necessarily criminals.

If somebody in the street is threatening to commit suicide, the police will deal with it. They'll section them and often take them to a police station, where they'll wait for a mental health professional.

But if somebody is threatening to commit suicide then they need 24/7 supervision, so you end up with one, sometimes two, police officers sitting outside a cell supervising someone who's got a mental health problem but who's not committed any criminal offence.

That's not a good use of resources when resources are diminishing. What's really important is protecting the public and reducing crime, because that's what we're about.

John Graham, director of the Police Foundation

According to Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy around 60% of crimes reported to the police are not investigated. With cuts to funding chief constables, like those in other public services, have to make difficult decisions on how best to allocate resources.

But it would be wrong to rule out a response to any specific crime type simply on the grounds of limited resources.

Offences of the same type can vary greatly in terms of severity and the impact they might have on the victim or local community. The theft of a wallet might be an irritation to someone wealthy, but could be devastating to a family on the breadline. The most important factor in reaching decisions about crime is the level of harm caused.

Serious crimes such as murder and armed robbery will always be investigated, but persistent, low-level problems such as anti-social behaviour, conducted over many months, can also be very harmful and are often of real concern to local communities.

These underlying problems need to be identified and require a police response. In practice, the allocation of resources is first and foremost a strategic decision: the police and crime commissioner will determine the priorities for the force based on the public's main concerns. While officers have considerable discretion, they will be expected to give priority to what is set out in the Policing Plan.

The real risk is that the police will focus on achieving short-term targets through easy arrests of, for example, cannabis users, rather than prioritising those crimes which are much harder to detect but can cause considerable harm, such as domestic abuse or people trafficking.

Chief Constable Nick Gargan, lead on police budgets at the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo)

It is clear that the police service is facing its biggest financial challenge in a generation. However, the police are actively trying to adapt and have developed effective and innovative approaches to cut crime with reduced budgets.

There has been a real-term cut to the policing budget of around 20%. This of course means that difficult operational decisions are having to be made - as forces word hard to not only improve services, but continue to improve them.

On average 81% of the police's spending is allocated to staffing; this of course means it is entirely predictable that reductions in budgets will directly lead to a sizeable fall in the workforce.

A great deal of work has been done to protect frontline services, which include things such as emergency response teams and neighbourhood policing; alongside less visible but equally important services that response to terrorism and organised crime. Where possible we're trying to make savings in areas like administrative support services in order to protect frontline services.

Although recorded crime levels have been falling, there are new emerging forms of demand on the police and they are growing quickly. It will be increasingly difficult for a shrinking workforce with shrinking budgets to continue the dramatic performance increases in recent years.

David Hanson MP, shadow minister for police and criminal justice

The police service in England and Wales is facing major challenges - not only have the government cut 15,000 officers by 2015, but new crime issues are emerging such as cyber crime, terrorism, and identity fraud, which need new and thoughtful responses.

The core for policing remains the local neighbourhood force - the issues of local anti-social behaviour, intelligence on drugs and regional crime, shop theft and violence against the person, especially domestic violence, remain key with officers on the ground being first call. But the new and diverse online issues need a response.

Given the government cuts the police need to act ever more efficiently: on the procurement of goods they use, such as vehicles, petrol, uniforms, etc; on the way they work together with other forces; on the technology they use; and on training and leadership of officers.

But with the financial constraints it remains a real challenge. Police services are now hollowed out and, despite the excellent efforts of officers, some things are harder than ever.

Finally, the police need to do this with the full confidence of the public - Labour has commissioned the independent review of policing under Lord Stevens to look at all these issues and it will report soon.

Tara Macpherson, senior researcher at Reform

Police reform has been one of the government's most successful public service reform stories. It is now safer to live in England and Wales than it has been for over 30 years. This is despite a 20% reduction in the budget over the last three years. The police have shown it is possible to improve services without requiring bigger budgets or more police officers.

In many cases, the financial challenge has created greater innovation and a more sensible approach to managing staff. Reviews have revealed that police forces have become far better at matching resources to demand, for instance, by making sure extra officers are on duty during busy periods.

But more can be done. As budgets continue to fall, police forces must become more imaginative and efficient. They need to work with other emergency services and the rest of the justice system in a coordinated way by sharing information and resources.

They should also set out to reduce the demand for police services by stopping crime from occurring in the first place. It is often the case that crime prevention still ends up at the bottom of the priority list. Unless they take these next steps services will begin to deteriorate.

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