The police say they are under pressure. Are they right?

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2018

Rick Muir, director of the Police Foundation, considers whether budget constraints and growing demand are actually having a major impact on the work of police forces.

The police service was bitterly disappointed that the chancellor said nothing about police funding in the recent Budget. We will see whether there is any better news when next year’s funding allocations are announced before Christmas.

There is no question that police forces are currently feeling squeezed. Police budgets were cut by 18% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2015-16. Although in 2015 George Osborne announced that police funding would be ‘protected’ over the life of the current comprehensive Spending Review, in reality the central government grant to police forces is falling by 1.4% in real terms between 2015-16 and 2019-20. It is only if Police and Crime Commissioners make up the shortfall by increasing council tax that the government can claim that police budgets have been protected in cash terms.

As a result, there are 20,592 fewer police officers in 2017 compared to 2010, alongside 15,533 less police staff and 6,705 fewer police community support officers.

The government has long argued that because crime is falling, the police have been able to absorb these cuts without delivering worse service for the public. It is true that according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, crime has fallen from a peak of around 19 million crimes a year in 1995 to 5.8 million incidents in the year ending June 2017. However, there are good reasons for thinking that this overall drop in crime has not led to significantly reduced demand on the police.

For one thing, the figures do not include the growing areas of fraud and computer misuse offences, which add five million offences to the total. Moreover, there are signs that this long-term decline may have halted and even reversed. Crime recorded by the police increased last year by 13%. The Office for National Statistics says that some of this is due to changes in recording practices, but it is also due to some actual increases in crime, particularly more harmful types such as knife crime. Regardless of whether the increase in recorded crime reflects an actual increase in crime, the more crimes that are recorded, the more demand there is for a police response. 

It is also worth pointing out that the crimes that are an increasing part of the police workload, such as sexual offences, are more complex to investigate. This is shown by the fact that over the last 10 years the costs of investigating crime have not fallen as much as overall numbers of crimes.

Contrary to the belief that the police are principally crime fighters, non-crime incidents account for 83% of Command and Control calls. According to the College of Policing, non-crime incidents have not fallen by anywhere like as much as crime incidents since 2010. In fact, there seems to have been a recent spike. The National Police Chiefs Council reports an increase of 11% in 999 calls over the last year, and some forces reported that over the summer of this year they were regularly experiencing New Year’s Eve levels of demand. 

So, has all this led to poorer service? Levels of public satisfaction with the local police appear unchanged, which shows that forces may have done a good job at prioritising savings so far in back-office areas. However, the public has already started to notice a reduction in police visibility, with fewer people reporting having seen a uniformed police presence on foot or in a vehicle in the last year. It is also worth noting that only 27% of the public say they have had any contact with their local police in the last year, which means that public satisfaction measures are only a very indirect way of assessing police performance. It may take time for deteriorations in visibility and response to work their way through into worsening public perceptions.

What we can say is that with resources falling in real terms and demand becoming more complex and rising in some areas, the police service is going to feel a significant resource squeeze for the foreseeable future.

Top Image: Joe Giddens, PA Wire 




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