Theoretically Speaking

In the last two weeks, @RichardJGarside director of an “independent public interest charity” called The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has penned two articles about police reform for The Guardian.

The central thrust of Mr Garside’s articles is that lowering the police budget will lead to more balance in the public sector and that slashing the police budget will stop police officers doing other people’s jobs.

Mr Garside’s first article states that the increase in police budgets in the decades prior to 2010 had the effect of “crowding out” other public sector professionals. Instead of a “comprehensive network of youth workers, social workers and crisis health teams” the police have adopted all manner of roles “probation officer, social worker, schools liaison, disaster manager, event steward” which he describes in his second article as “mission creep.”

I have been a police officer since 1994 and there is no doubt at all that things changed dramatically when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister and the Labour government took office in 1997.

Firstly, police started worrying about targets and value for money. Subjects I had not experienced during the first three years of my service. Indeed, up until about 1998 a superintendent was some god-like figure you rarely saw or heard from unless something bad had happened. Post 1998, superintendents suddenly became massively visible and were usually seen carrying some kind of spreadsheet. This was the birth of performance culture. Something which can be linked to government policy of “deliverology” but which, I think, has now been widely accepted as a Bad Thing.

The other thing that changed at this time was the introduction of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Not only did this piece of legislation introduce new racially aggravated elements to offences, it heralded a new dawn in partnership working. It became law that all other statutory bodies such as Health and Education must consider crime reduction in their planning.

This really was a new direction and it led to the formation of Crime Reduction Partnerships at strategic and tactical levels.

I was working as a neighbourhood beat constable at the time and witnessed for myself that this new arrangement was not without its problems. In many cases we found that strategic buy-in and promises from the various chief executives was not always met with the same passion at tactical level. I found that some partnership agencies (particularly council housing) were very keen to work more closely with the police whilst others (such as health) dragged their heels.

From a personal perspective I found that it was almost always the police who were leading on initiatives or chairing the meetings. This wasn’t a case of bullying others out – we just simply couldn’t get anyone else to take charge of anything. There were exceptions and notable ones at that, but as a general rule it was the police in the driving seat.

Despite all of this there were some great achievements which I have blogged about previously. These were the result of police working alongside the council, local activists and community groups and it led to a reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour. No one organisation could have achieved the same success by themselves but the result could not have been achieved without police work. Proper police work. Surveillance, enforcement, visible presence. Alongside this proper police work came planning meetings, school liaison, community meetings and working with and alongside social workers, council housing staff, drug workers, teachers and even town clerks.

Each of these brought something to the table and we all benefitted from learning more about each other’s roles and from working together. There was no “crowding out” it was very much a case of “encouraging in” and then working as a team.

When I returned to neighbourhood work in 2004 and again in 2008 something was different. The relationships had not developed as I thought they would have and with each new role I took on, over and above introducing myself personally, I found that it was like starting from scratch in 1998. This surprised me.

Most telling was the relationship I had with the council housing team in 2004. Here was a team of good, dedicated people who I fell out with spectacularly. I hasten to add that this was in the early days of us working together and we were able to quickly rebuild a fine and trusting working relationship.

We fell out because I stopped doing their work for them. When I took over the reigns of the best team I was astonished at the number of disclosure requests which were coming in. The housing team were constantly writing to the police asking for details of incidents and then asking police to “support the request made by our tenant for a housing transfer.”

The general tactic which had been adopted was for an issue to arise between tenants (threats, violence, anti-social behaviour), the tenant would approach housing for a move, housing would write to the police asking for details of the calls and written support from an officer saying why the tenant needed to move and then housing would look to move the victim.

My first question was “what are you doing about the perpetrators?”

I won’t bore you with the complexities of the Data Protection Act but suffice it to say the manner in which disclosure was being requested was wrong. I also sought guidance on whether the police should generally be offering opinion on whether they thought someone should be moved or not. In short order we stopped disclosing and we stopped giving opinion. I was less than popular.

It then took me several months to persuade my colleagues from the council of the correct processes involved and how it would perhaps be more effective to tackle the people causing the problems rather than simply moving victims. It was a rough ride but we started to make progress.

I don’t know how it had happened but the council had become almost reliant on the police to provide them with information and opinion before they would take (in my view – the wrong) action.

This is where I agree with Mr Garside. There has become a reliance on the police to take action or responsibility and I have written many times about how police have become the de facto “Plan B” for so many other organisations.

Where I disagree with Mr Garside is that I do not believe that this is down to budgets. I believe it is down to accountability.

There are two very good reasons why the police have ended up performing the roles outlined by Mr Garside and described as “mission creep.”

They are investigation and inspection.

Although there is a section of the media and many loud voices in the public who say that the police are unaccountable, I cannot think of another British organisation which is the subject of such intense and ongoing scrutiny. So much so that the government have reduced the overall police budget and syphoned some of the money off to increase the size and capacity of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

The reason why the police have become so risk averse and have ended up developing specialist roles and functions that Mr Garside calls “mission creep” is because at some point they have been heavily criticised by HMIC or the IPCC (or even the Judiciary) for NOT doing more to protect someone.

Many of the cases subject to public vilification have involved other agencies whose role, it is arguable, should probably have been primary to the police but it is the police who have faced the biggest criticism and they have naturally become defensive. This has led to the creation of all kinds of specialist departments and roles which didn’t exist in the past. If a body like the HMIC or IPCC is telling you you should have done more or that your systems are not sophisticated enough or your processes are inadequate and then inspects you on it, then you are going to dedicate resources to it.

For whatever reason, I do not believe we have seen the same response from other agencies. Partly because they are not inspected or investigated in the same way. There have been cases where social workers or other professionals have been disciplined or faced criminal charges but in many cases of multi-agency systemic failure it is the police officers, trying to deal with something at the point of crisis, who end up facing criminal charges. Just look at mental health restraint for example.

In mental health matters the police have not crowded out other agencies they have been drawn in. Yes, the budgets for mental health provision have been well below what they should be but this, of late, has been down to local commissioning decisions rather than government policy. The government’s response to the problem is not LESS police involvement but MORE police involvement through triage programmes. The only people empowered to deal with mental health crises in public are the police. This is not the case in private but you will find that crisis teams across the country are telling people to “call the police” anyway.

Now it may well be that some of this is down to resources but the police simply cannot say no and don’t say no. Once it has been identified that there is no legal basis for police to be involved they can say no but there are ongoing examples of where police have not responded to a “concern for welfare” of an individual which are now being investigated by the IPCC.

Yesterday, I had a particularly busy late shift which involved no less than 9 high risk missing people (suicidal, vulnerable through age). In the same shift I reviewed equally as many missing people with a lower risk rating, I authorised 7 taser deployments (none fired but all in response to bladed articles or other weapons) and considered three jobs which did not meet the criteria for armed deployment at all. All of this took place in about a 6 hour period. This does not account for the many other calls for service my team took from the public and at the end of the shift I sat and contemplated whether shrinking the police budget would help at all.

If we did reduce the police budget would it lead to the utopia that Mr Garside suggests where other agencies might be better funded and therefore willing and able to undertake work instead of the police and which might prevent things ever reaching the point where police were needed.

It does rely on the money taken off the police being reinvested directly into the other agencies and, if that were to happen, over a period of maybe a decade, I can see how it might lead to better upstream intervention, greater community care and less crisis.

The main flaw in the argument and one which makes it untenable is that this isn’t what is going to happen. The money being taken off the police isn’t going to be reinvested – it just won’t be spent. The state is shrinking – it is being shrunk. It will not be redistributed evenly amongst the other public sector bodies. In fact, as stated, if it is being redistributed it is to enlarge the inspection and investigation regime.

What we are actually seeing is the budget being shrunk and the police actually having to use what is left to pay for services (such as triage) which should arguably be being provided directly by health. This is forced redistribution and it actually bolsters Mr Garside’s argument that money is in the wrong place to begin with.

But what we don’t see, nor will we see, is a lowering of the expectations on the police. Calum Steele, president of the Police Scotland Police Federation has come up with a wonderful quote which sums this up:

“Savings must be made – Nothing must be cut.”

Senior officers are now trying to start the debate on what it is the public expect the police to do. They are openly saying that with the budget cuts which are forecast they cannot do everything they have traditionally done. The media and public reaction has been outrage.

Maybe it would have been wiser to talk about all the other things that police have become expected to do rather than start with future police responses to burglary. Maybe it would have been wiser to start listing the roles that police perform which the public know nothing about and the reasons why they exist.

But you cannot have that conversation without explaining why those roles exist and how they have developed. This leads us back to investigation and inspection.

Mr Garside is right in that is a situation which only the government can sort out. The role of the police needs to be clearly identified and this includes what is NOT the role of the police and whose role it should be. That discussion shows no signs of coming from government. Rather than loosening the grip which has led the police to act as it does, Government are strengthening the investigation and inspection regimes which scrutinise policing. This will lead to more defensiveness, risk avoidance and role creation. Less ability to focus on the many and more need to concentrate on the vulnerable fewer.

The money saved by cutting police budgets will not be redistributed to the social workers or mental health teams. It will just disappear. In fact, it is likely that the budgets for these agencies will be cut as well. There will be no rebalancing of the public sector just overall reduction. All we will see is ever increasing gaps which vulnerable people will fall through.

As an aspirational piece of theory, Mr Garside’s articles make interesting reading.  I am not even suggesting that the concept doesn’t have value and merit. It is just that in the world we live in and the direction it is clearly heading I don’t believe we will be seeing it become a reality any time soon.


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  1. Theoretically Speaking | Policing news | Scoop... - September 9, 2015

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