British policing: Death by a thousand cuts
The announcement by George Osborne in relation to forthcoming cuts, whilst expected, nevertheless sent a shockwave throughout the police service. To those at the sharp end of policing news of further cuts of between 25 and 40% can only have one end result: that their job will become both more difficult and dangerous.
Despite the fact that public are aware of cuts to policing, what is lacking outside policing circles is any form of debate into how insidious and corrosive these cuts are to traditional British policing. Theresa May skilfully avoids any meaningful television interviews that may involve difficult and probing questions and thus the public is again left with her largely unnoticed appearances in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee.
If her last appearance is anything to go by, the committee will divide upon party lines with Conservative members feeding questions that will enable her to list “achievements” and whilst the opposition side may be more hostile, the questions are likely again to lack in-depth “Jeremy Paxman like” probing.
George Osborne’s announcement coincided with other statements, speeches and initiatives in relation to police cuts, few of which gave much comfort to the front line. Sara Thornton’s speech to the Police Foundation was clearly not intended for the consumption of Joe Public amongst which are serving and retired officers. As was splendidly tweeted; “Thornton is a chief who will call a spade an agrarian implement” which summed up nicely the academic tone of her speech. Sara Thornton, CBE, QPM, is the current head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
Space precludes any attempt to undertake a line by line dissection of her views but suffice it to say there was an overreliance on quotes and ‘research’ largely emanating from the USA. Challenge (and derivatives thereof) and change largely occupy statements of most chief officers anxious not to ruffle too many feathers at the Home Office and Sara Thornton’s speech was no exception.
Foot patrols/neighbourhood policing/community policing are clearly regarded by many Chief Officers as expendable and we now have a newish phrase on the block in ‘hot spot patrols.’ Quite why ‘hot spot patrols’ in presumably high crime areas will be effective while ‘bobbies on the beat’ are not is, frankly, a little bit of a mystery.
Sara Thornton’s speech, lengthy as it was, paid scant regard to the terrorist threat, increased stress on officers leading to increased levels of sickness, a rise in assaults on police and the collapse of police morale as illustrated in numerous surveys.
Little comfort either for rural communities, in either Sara Thornton’s speech or indeed in the review of police funding comments made by the Police Minister, Mike Penning. A survey of those living in rural areas showed that two thirds believe police are failing them and yet any forthcoming review is likely to adversely impact on many forces with significant rural areas. Concerns as to the dangers of policing rural areas where back up is often a considerable distance away, were articulated in the recent ITV ‘Rookies’ programmed which features new recruits to Lincolnshire police.
Ironically Lincolnshire may well benefit with other forces, from an improved slice of the Police Formulae Allocation (PFA) cake but, as was pointed out, doubtless with George Osborne’s proposals in mind, those ‘lucky’ forces will get a bigger slice of a smaller cake.
Penning’s comments on the PFA were accompanied by his and Theresa May’s usual infuriating mantra namely that: “Police reform is working. Over the last five years, front line services have been protected.” Even Sara Thornton and her coterie of the most acquiescent Chief Constables would have difficulty in endorsing that view without crossing fingers behind their backs.
In contrast the Chief Constable of Merseyside, Jon Murphy, drew much approbation from the police community when he spelt out in no uncertain terms how cuts would adversely affect the service provided by his force.
The Chief Constable, in stating “there is no good news,” followed by, “we will not deliver as good a service as we have done before” is at complete variance with the “we can achieve more with less” philosophy. Doubtless his comments would have enraged the Home Office who would nevertheless have been comforted by the fact that his comments were, quelle surprise, ignored by most of national media.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) however, would have unquestionably incurred the wrath of the Home Office with its publication entitled the “National Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime.”
It made gloomy reading in respect of issues that included child sexual exploitation, firearms, human trafficking, slavery and cyber crime. Those reading it (including myself) were bewildered in that it was in complete contrast to the ‘everything in the garden is lovely and getting lovelier’ imagery depicted by the Home Office. How could an agency created by, and answerable to, Theresa May, have strayed so far off message?
The answer perhaps came a few days later when the Mail on Sunday revealed that seven key members of the NCA management board were due to leave including the head, Keith Bristow. The article also spoke of low morale within the organisation.
Of course the 37% of the electorate will point out that theirs is an elected government with a mandate. They will also, fairly point out that the electorate rejected a chance of proportional representation. Others however will stress that the extent of the cuts were never made public before the election and we can all remember in one of her rare interviews, Theresa May squirming as she refused to answer questions as to where the cuts would fall,
The sad fact is that the weight of the cuts will descend on many of those who voted for another party or did not vote at all. Police, especially those who work in socially deprived areas, know that much of the fallout from these deep cuts will fall upon their depleted shoulders. Unemployable criminal elements, known perhaps a tad unkindly as the ‘underclass’ and who are frequently to be seen on a plethora of TV programmes, will present a real challenge as will domestic issues within families struggling to make ends meet.
Cutbacks will surely mean more individuals suffering with mental health issues and indeed the recently issued increase in male suicide figures perhaps illustrates the extent of the problem. The elderly too will inevitably suffer which will mean more welfare visits by police as social care services struggle to cope.
The simple fact is that it is those at the bottom of the ladder who will suffer as these swingeing cutbacks take effect while demoralised, under resourced ‘police partner agencies’ all but implode resulting in an increasing burden on police themselves. As more and more individuals struggle in so many different ways it will be the police who will act as the safety net and is any police officer going to be comfortable if his or her force refuses to respond to a call such as that of an elderly person lying helpless on the floor or otherwise in distress?
Despite the best efforts of police, the world as envisaged by Sara Thornton and others will mean, and no apologies here for repeating myself, a chasm will open up between the police and public. The latter will only see police in times of stress such as when they are the victims of crime, involved in an accident, being arrested or otherwise reported or rebuked.
As tensions grow so does the risk of public disorder together with the insecurity that this brings if it rages out of control as it did in 2011. There may be improvements in systems that ensure forces with problems can be assisted by other forces but, despite all the signed agreements and memorandums of understanding, it may well be that faced with a spreading wildfire of rioting Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners will refuse to release their public order trained officers.
“We must change the way we police” appears to be the theme running through the upper echelons of policing and policing academics. The ‘Red Button’ scheme currently and commendably being introduced by the respected policing academic Emma Williams invites those at all levels of policing to suggest ways of rebuilding the police from scratch. This will almost certainly produce innovative suggestions from the front line.
The sad fact however is that whatever revolutionary changes are made, the jam will simply be too thinly spread, police morale will continue to fall and the public will become divorced from what was once the finest police service in the world.
Little wonder then that assertions by Theresa May that the police need to “rebuild their relationship with the public “when it is government policies that are destroying that relationship, are greeted with total contempt by all sections of the police family.