Reform of police service is key, not a fixation on numbers

There is no need for the fiscal squeeze to hit frontline numbers; the sooner we get away from being fixated with the overall number of officers the better.

Our guest writer is Rick Muir, senior research fellow at the ippr

The debate about crime in the run up to the election is heating up. First we had a row about disputed violent crime statistics; now the Conservatives have claimed that the Government is secretly planning to cut police officer numbers, despite pledges to protect frontline policing.

The Tory claim is based on a report by the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), which says that financial savings could be made – and performance improved – by replacing some police officers with civilian staff to carry out various functions that do not require the skills or authority of a warranted constable.

So, who is right? First, some context: spending on the police service increased by 19 per cent in real terms between 1997/98 and 2008/09. Most of this money was spent on increasing the number of police officers: police numbers increased by 11 per cent or by 16,326 officers between 1997 and 2009, meaning that there are more police now than at any time in our history. So, in historic terms, the police are exceptionally well resourced – and at a time when crime has fallen to its lowest level since 1981.

We now face a fiscal squeeze, and all parties have said that the police service will need to find savings. The prime minister has pledged to protect “frontline policing”, but has carefully not committed the Government to protect total officer numbers overall. There is a crucial difference between those two things.

The Government’s position is entirely sensible and was one I proposed in a recent ippr report. We can protect frontline officer numbers – those out on the beat, working in neighbourhood policing teams or in frontline response teams – while also employing fewer police officers overall. This is because there are many functions that officers currently carry out at comparatively high cost that could easily be done more efficiently by civilian staff.

Evidence from recent modernisation pilots shows that greater use of civilians can raise performance: a CID team in Surrey achieved an 8 per cent lower running cost following a reconfiguration making greater use of civilian staff. Use of civilians to help with investigations led to an increase in the detection rate of one Surrey basic command unit of a third.

There is no need for the fiscal squeeze to hit frontline officer numbers – we can both protect neighbourhood policing and make significant savings – but to do that we need to engage in significant reform of the way the police service works, including the constable/civilian mix, cutting out layers of middle management and reforming costly and archaic force structures. The sooner we get away from being fixated with the overall number of officers the better.

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