Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Catching criminals

There’s a certain inevitability about the way in which press coverage of lengthy reports will tend to highlight a few striking points rather than delve into the detail.  This report in yesterday’s Independent was no exception; faced with a 105 page report from the Policy Exchange (available here), no brief summary was ever going to do more than scratch the surface.  (Interestingly, the same report, almost word for word, appeared in the Western Mail as well as in the Independent)
One of the headline figures associated with the story was that “14,500 police officers in Wales and England made no arrests last year”.  It’s an eye-catching figure, but my reaction was to ask ‘so what?’.  Is the number of people arrested really the right criterion for judging the success of the police service?  I’m more interested in levels of crime – preventing and deterring crime is surely a better outcome than catching people after the event.
In fairness to the full report, it takes a much more rounded view of the efficacy of the police service than that one figure suggested, and the most important overall conclusion drawn, to my mind, was that increased expenditure on the police, and increased numbers of staff, have not resulted in a commensurate improvement in performance in terms of crime solving and reduction. 
But would we really expect it to?  There is no reason why crime should be different from any other phenomenon; the marginal cost of a small reduction is likely to get higher as the total falls.  Determining how much we are prepared to pay for a given additional level of further reduction is precisely in the sphere of political debate about priorities.
That doesn’t mean that the police service cannot find ways of doing some things more efficiently or cheaply, of course.  No organisation of that size is without potential for improvement, and the police must be subject to the same level of scrutiny as other services. 
In that context, the report raises some interesting points about civilianisation, and effectively questions whether the investigation of crime requires the same skill set and training (and subsequent salary costs) as those required by uniformed warranted officers.  It’s not the first time that question has been raised recently – there was a suggestion not long ago that the long-standing rule that all police officers of all descriptions have to start as ordinary constables should be revisited. 
The suggestion is anathema to many in the service, but that is not reason enough to reject it outright.  The UK approach to policing – as a single integrated service – is far from being the norm elsewhere.  Many countries have multiple police forces dealing with different issues at different levels.  Rather than concentrate simply on costs and efficiency, it might be better for us to take a more radical look at policing in general.


stuart said...

In an ideal world every police officer would make zero arrests.

Anonymous said...

The suggestion is mot anathema to many in the BTP. It's a requirement. Specialist training gives the transport constabulary it's distinctiveness. The question then arises when 'city dumping' occurs of those arrested for public order offences by civil constabularies on major railway stations to get a of a problem off their "patch". This can result in an obnoxious drunk being removed from a place of safety into a place of danger, both to him/herself and others. Care should be taken to stop 'passing the buck' within specialist units. There is also a measure of police performance rarely talked about (until the riots in England), that of saving lives and protecting the public. This is the primary role of a warranted officer and overrides the need to obtain a prosecution. The first stage in the decision making process of calling suspects to account is the decision made by an officer at the scene of an incident. Suspects can be victims, and victims can also be suspects. Arrest is not just a tool of potential prosecution. It's also a tool of diffusion, intelligence, and public order. This makes the whole 'target' approach taken by the government superfluous. Whilst 'specialist units' can exist within any constabulary, they are usually formed reactively, when the reality is, that to be most effective they need to be proactive.