Monday, February 07, 2011

No laughing policeman

The government has announced that it plans to shed 10,000 police officers in 'efficiency savings'. And people are cheering. Yes, cheering. One eminent solicitor on Twitter even wrote yesterday that it was 'A good start'. Really? Well, I hope you get what you wished for. As for me ... the thought fills me with a terrible sense of foreboding. These are the people who, daily, put their lives on the line to protect you and the people you love from harm, remember.

What exactly will losing 10,000 police officers look like? Let's put it into perspective:

Losing 10,000 police officers is the equivalent of stripping a third of all police officers from the streets of London. It's the number of officers in the Devon and Cornwall, Avon and Somerset and Dorset police forces combined - it's the equivalent of losing every police officer West of Bristol. It's 2000 more than cover the whole of Greater Manchester and more than twice as many as there are on Merseyside. That's one hell of a lot of police officers that you soon won't have available to help you.

So where do you think that these cuts will be made? Well, I can assure all of you that it won't be in frontline police services. Oh no. If you were hoping for fewer cops policing student demos or guarding MPs you're living in La-La Land. And there will still be plenty of cops zipping around in fast cars - maybe zipping around a little quicker as they'll have an even more unrealistic workload to handle. No, the cuts will come from the 'soft' services that support the front-line police officers and support communities.

The one thing (and I think it's probably not much more than that) that Labour got right in their tenure was putting police officers back on their feet and into the community. That's what policing should be about. But, come the cuts, you can say goodbye the local bobby who knows every street and every shopkeeper and who has a word with the local youths if they get a bit troublesome. Say goodbye to the copper who has the time to sit in old people's homes and sheltered accommodation and reassure your grannies and grandads and explain how not to get taken in by bogus officials. Say goodbye to the lads and lasses happy to give up their time to sit with you in your homes and workplaces and tell you how to make yourself less vulnerable to crime. Say goodbye to schools visits that show your kids the horrors and dangers of drugs, alcohol abuse and gang affiliation. Oh, and expect fewer crime prevention officers, victim support and office workers - always the first to be turfed out in any cuts - so paperwork will take longer and any appointments you want to make will get further and further away. Instead, you can look forward to a return to the 1980s of faceless police officers put back into cars to keep up with demand. Once again, the onus will go back to catching the bad guy rather than prevention. But isn't that good you say? Not really. For someone to be a bad guy they've got to have first robbed, decieved or assaulted one of you. Surely it's better to prevent that?

The reasons being given by the coalition are that crime has dropped by 40% in the past 10 years and the police can be more efficient and so, obviously, we don't need so many officers. What nonsense.

Firstly, the fact that police strengths have been built up and augmented by employing Community Support Officers is a major factor in those crime reduction figures. Removing the officers now is madness. It's like putting a pedestrian crossing on a dangerous road and then removing it because people have stopped being knocked down.

Secondly, another major part of that crime reduction is that the general public are now far more savvy about how to protect themselves and their property. And how did they learn this? Mostly by very labour-intensive education in crime prevention from officers walking the beat, running workshops and surgeries and delivering leaflets, books and supporting Neighbourhood Watch schemes. Those officers won't be available after the cuts. And that's very frustrating.

The problem is that it's very difficult to persuade people to invest in 'what might happen'. Consequently, something awful has to happen before people will put resources into stopping it from happening again. And even if they do invest in a preventative measure and it seems to work i.e. crime stops, it's impossible to prove that it's worked because you can't say for certain that X amount of incidents would have happened if you hadn't reacted when you did. All we can do is draw out data to support the assertion that what we've done has had an effect. That's done by smart cops and analysts sitting in intelligence units ... who are an expensive 'luxury'. If jobs have to be lost it'll be people like that rather than front-line cops who are lost, believe me.

Thirdly, there are better ways to save money than shedding officers. For example, most items and services bought for the police go through some kind of procurement process. There are budgets of all kinds and people employed to negotiate with companies to purchase goods and services with those budgets. But here's the thing - the budgets system encourages silly spending. For example, if I was head of IT for a particular police division I would be given an annual budget to cover purchases and services. Let's say that it's £30,000. If I haven't spent all of that money by the end of the financial year, what happens? Logically, you'd think that anything remaining would be put into the kitty to bolster the following year's budget or could be used sensibly elsewhere. But no. It doesn't work that way. What happens is that if I only spend £20,000, the following year I only get £20,000 because that's now seen as how much I need per annum. Consequently, everyone is encouraged to spend up to their limit to retain their budget level and it results in buying equipment that is surplus to requirements or overly expensive. When my work laptop broke, I could have walked down to my nearest PC World and bought a brand new machine and a guarantee on parts and labour that day for around £600. Instead, my request went through procurement, and I waited for months to eventually be issued with a laptop that was way over the spec I required and which cost, incredibly, over £2000. Absolutely true. It also had a service contract attached to it that was more than eight times the cost of a five year guarantee at PC World. The reason this annoys me so much is that the major IT systems that are the backbone of police operations could really do with a major overhaul and update. The problem is that there's never any spare cash to do that and, even if there were, the Daily Mail et al would roast the police over wasting public money on fancy computers instead of catching crooks. If all of the surplus underspend could be gathered in over a period of a few years, such an upgrade could be done within existing budgets. Ishould also explain that this kind of budget madness exists right across the whole of the public and civil services. Millions of pounds are needlessly wasted every year.

Want to make even more savings? Reduce the number of ranks. The police service has a ridiculous number of tiers starting with Chief Constable, then Deputy Chief Constable, then Assistant Chief Constable, Chief superintendent, Superintendent, Chief Inspector, Inspector, Sergeant and Constable. In London it's even worse with Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, Assistant Commissioner, Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Commander, Chief superintendent and so on down to Constable. Nothing you could say would persuade me that there is any appreciable difference between the role of a Chief Inspector and a Superintendent, or between a Chief Superintendent and a Commander/Assistant Chief Constable. You could strip out two of the highest paid ranks almost immediately. Lose one Superintendent, you can keep two Constables. In fact this was suggested over 20 years ago following a major government review of police structure and efficiency. No one took any notice.

You could also look at issuing police officers with personal equipment. One major difference between most of the police forces I've visited in the USA and the UK is that in the USA, an officer's equipment is personal issue. And guess what? If a radio, phone, gun or car are yours and yours alone, you tend to take a little more care of it. If a UK officer damages a radio, they simply go back to the station, write it up as defective and book another out. I'm not saying that officers are outrageously irresponsible or even reckless. They are no more so than in any other profession. But what I am saying is that making every item personal tends to make someone look after it that little bit more carefully. Just ask a soldier.

I would also look at getting rid of expensive anachronisms like police helmets which must cost a fortune, fall off at every opportunity and offer modest protection. In defence of my argument I will point out that senior officers usually wear flat caps as do all police officers driving vehicles. Are their heads not important too? Or is the risk of head injury really so strong that they should all be wearing crash helmets? You can't have it both ways. Another expensive and outdated luxury is the police canteen. Some forces have already shed theirs and have saved a fortune. There's actually a lot to be said for eating in a local cafe or restaurant or buying a sandwich and finding somewhere pleasant to eat it, especially in the Summer. It shows the public that you're human. It deters crime and it breaks down barriers between police and the people they serve.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and I know that there are many other ways in which money could be saved. Maybe we could reduce the number of MPs or civil servants? Maybe MPs could travel coach class rather than First? Even non-cabinet MPs enjoy this little luxury. Or give them all an Oyster card and scrap the chauffeurs and car pool. Maybe we could ask for a little more back from the overseas-registered tax-dodging weasels whose stores squat in our High Streets and who laugh at us while counting their company profits?

All I do know is that losing 10,000 police officers - especially at a time when civil unrest sems to be once again on the rise globally - is a kind of madness. Surely if the issue is simply about saving money, there are better ways to do it that to remove from our streets the very people we rely on to keep us all from harm?

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