What are the police for?

Home secretary with police officers Image copyright PA
Image caption Theresa May hopes to save £150m a year with the new police pay deal

The Home Secretary's speech on the police on Monday was billed as a coherent ideological vision for the service in England and Wales.

As she rubber-stamped proposed changes which will take tens of millions out of officers' pay packets, Theresa May emphasised that, while "some police officers will be disappointed by this outcome", she was not forcing through reform just to save money.

She explained how changes to officers' pay and conditions, cuts to police budgets and the introduction of elected police commissioners all form part of a plan to make the force more responsive to the demands of the citizens they serve.

The reforms, she said, "will leave us with a police force that is answerable to the public and transformed in its ability to fight crime".

In effect, the Home Secretary was offering her answer to a question upon which I have been pondering for the past couple of months: what are the police for?

My new BBC Radio 4 series, for which that question acts as the title, begins on Monday. At first glance, we think we know the answer: it is about fighting crime and keeping people safe. But a cocktail of major reform and budget cuts obliges politicians and police chiefs to be a bit more precise than that.

Some chief constables are warning that neighbourhood policing may have to be cut. Others say they need to look at the amount of time spent on partnership working and the meetings with other agencies.

I have met police advisors who think officers should do less investigating crime and more preventing crime. Ministers insist there is a lot of bureaucracy and duplication which can be reduced.

On becoming Home Secretary, Theresa May told senior officers she wanted to be crystal clear that the mission of the service was "to cut crime, no more and no less". While the first part of that statement is unarguable, the second would seem to relegate great chunks of what the police currently do into "extras".

The lost child, the confused old gentleman who has forgotten how to get home, the burst water main that has flooded the High Street, the death notice to be delivered to relatives of a teenager killed in a road accident, the road safety advice for primary school children, the neighbours who need to be told to turn the music down: are we really saying that the police should stop doing these duties unless they are demonstrated to "cut crime"?

In episode one, the policing minister Nick Herbert accepts that there is rather more to the job than cutting crime, but insists the home secretary was right to emphasise that that is the core of their mission.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Police duties are many and varied

The past decade has seen a shift in police priorities from an enforcement approach which targets those who break the law to a consensual style which encourages people to obey the law. The service has become a bit more Dixon of Dock Green and a bit less The Sweeney.

For some, this is a worrying trend. As one delegate at the Tory conference last year put it, there should be more emphasis put on "rat catchers" rather than "social workers".

However, having spent a week with police officers of all kinds in Thames Valley, it seems to me that there is a paradox in terms of what the public want the service to do.

On a general level, people will often say they want police to catch villains and lock them up. But when you ask what they want the police to do locally, it tends to be more mundane tasks.

As the Chief Constable of Thames Valley, Sara Thornton, told me: "When we do our surveys very, very rarely do people say what's bothering us around here is burglary or robbery or car crime. What's really bothering them is anti-social behaviour, minor damage, noisiness, rowdiness, people parking inconsiderately."

In the old coaching town of Stony Stratford near Milton Keynes, for example, I met the chair of the local neighbourhood action group, Denise Branning. Top of local people's concerns were litter and thoughtless parking, she said.

Image copyright Metropolitan Police
Image caption Community engagement is a watchword

Another common grievance was dog poo. Just around the corner I met a police community support officer whose duties included patrolling parks and footpaths to ensure owners picked up and disposed of the offending items.

Is this what police budgets should be spent on? In Monday's speech, the home secretary put it like this: "From the graffiti and litter that blights a local area, to the binge drinking and drug dealing that makes people frightened to step outside, right up to the criminal gangs who flaunt their illegal wealth and cheat the exchequer out of millions - our police reforms will help fight them all."

That is a much broader description of the police's role than cutting crime "no more and no less". Indeed, it might be argued, Theresa May wants them to do it all - from kids tagging a lamp-post to organised criminal gangs.

So what do you think the role of the police should be? Take part in the debate on Twitter, using the hashtag #whatarepolicefor.

Mark's series What Are The Police For starts on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 30 January at 20:00 GMT, or catch up with iPlayer