Policing beyond 2020

The recent resignation of the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police (GMP) is a sign of how much policing still matters.  Despite the enormity of the pandemic and the economic and social impact of lockdown, the failings of a major public service can still lead the news.

The failed outsourcing and data management issues were identified over a year ago, and yet inspectors found little repair and recovery to speak of.  The force itself has been accused of moving too slowly to grip the problem, with many more questions still to be answered. The impact on victims of crime is hard to quantify but the scandal has a long way to run.

One major concern is that the episode will impact the integrity and completeness of crime statistics, possibly permanently. And it will also raise doubts again about the capability of local police forces to manage major procurements and ensure accurate crime data recording. It will also invite new discussion over how to hold private suppliers to account.

The Inspectorate of Constabulary played a vital part – arguably its most legitimate role – in being the expert finder of failure (rather than the self-appointed arbiter of ‘best practice’).  And the media was able to direct their questions at the local politicians responsible for overseeing the police. A decade ago, before the advent of directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), all such questions would have gone up to the Home Office.

Policing has been through a decade of austerity and reform where forces lost huge numbers of personnel – both civilian and uniform – and visible, neighbourhood policing was hollowed out. The public noticed this retrenchment and complain about it frequently in focus groups – linking lack of police presence to disorder and neglect of town centres, the growth of drug dealing and the failure to tackle quality-of-life crime. Albeit this was also a period when new agencies like the NCA were created, accountability and transparency were enhanced, and there was generally falling crime. The next decade will look a lot different.

Much higher police numbers nationally by 2023, while widely appreciated, will go alongside the rising demand we can expect after Covid-19: from higher unemployment, possible social strife, more mental illness, family breakdown and drug use.  All of which will logically lead not just to more offending, but also to more unrealistic assumptions among media and politicians about the contribution the police can and should be making. Even by 2024, total officer numbers on current plans will still represent a fall in per capita terms compared to 2010 given population growth.

However, the onboarding of 20,000 additional officers is the most any government has ever recruited in such a short period and combined with the economic conditions post-Covid 19 driving upwards pressure on crime, this will inevitably mean we are entering an era of rising expectations on the police.

Whatever the lessons of the GMP scandal, to meet these expectations, the police both nationally and locally will need to partner more, not less. They already need additional support from the private sector to meet the growing volume of complex crime and online offending, which is overwhelming them.  But they will also need whole new delivery models to ensure that they can remain efficient and effective in the face of regional and trans-national organised crime and rapid advances in technology.

The forces that innovate will do best. Whether that is new ways to measure local public sentiment; new technology to speed online investigations, or new partnerships to drive down economic crime or retail theft, the police are going to need to collaborate and co-produce public safety faster than ever before.

There are new players in the landscape that will be increasingly important to the police in that endeavour. The College of Policing, soon to be under new leadership, will need to rebuild its brand, and demonstrate the value it provides around training and evidence, to the frontline.  BlueLight Commercial will need to show that it can forge private sector partnerships that are scalable and will endure.  And the manifesto commitment of a new National Crime Laboratory, once launched, will need to score some early wins and show how it can leverage British policing’s unrivalled advantage: the quality and scale of its rich and robust data reserves.

The delayed elections coming up in May will see PCCs elected for a third time in England and Wales.  For them, the rest of this Parliament will be unlike the last two – instead of cuts there will be a rising tide of extra officers but forces will need to do more to ensure they are well trained, deployed appropriately and better equipped.  Almost half of the whole force of 140,000 officers is projected to have less than five years service by 2023. Most forces cannot map live officer location against current hotspots and predicted demand.  Facial recognition is still not deployed in every force area.

PCCs also know that these new officers will need to be visible to the public, who will want to see neighbourhood policing teams restored, and uniformed officers back on the high street of their towns and suburbs. Without new officers reaching the communities where they are needed it will be hard for the government to demonstrate a return on the investment that the Home Office is advertising constantly.

The leadership of British policing will need to be adaptable and resilient to the new economic realities, given the cratering of the public finances and the likelihood that criminal justice backlogs look set to go on growing indefinitely. Secondly, local policing will need to get much better at understanding public opinion and local priorities, and conventional surveys are not enough anymore.  Lastly it will be even more vital that PCCs, and national agencies like the College, support police forces to become more technologically ambitious, more data proficient and more open to new partnerships than they have ever been before.

The pandemic and the lockdowns of 2020 presented an unusual policing challenge but the last year also marked a watershed. From 2021 onwards, the policing challenge is going to change significantly. It will be vital to understand public attitudes and what the market can offer to improve public safety if the extra resources are going to be used effectively in the new era of more cops and more crime.