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Mission impossible – can the police alone reduce crime?

Penelope Gibbs
04 Mar 2020

Is the government asking the police to do the impossible? The Home Secretary has funded 20,000 new officers and she wants results. In her recent speech to senior police and police and crime commissioners she set out her quid pro-quo – in return she wanted success to be “measured against a set of national policing outcomes that are focused on reducing crime and delivering for the public”.

Priti’s first headache is going to be how to assess whether crime has been reduced. The most reliable measure of crime is the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which asks a representative population sample who has been a victim of crime. According to this, crime overall has not increased in the last year, though particular types of crime have. But the CSE&W does not measure crime locally, so could not gauge the success of local police forces in reducing crime. The Home Office will have to rely on police recorded crime, which is a pretty unreliable measure of whether crime is happening. (“For some types of crime…an increase in the number of offences recorded by the police is unlikely to indicate a real rise in these types of crime” ONS). Police crime figures vary according to recording practice, and can be gamed. Last time we had police targets – at the height of New Labour – data on “offences brought to justice” was skilfully manipulated to ensure targets were hit.

We all want crime to be reduced. But, until we establish exactly why detection rates have gone down so much, it will be difficult to increase them. However we do know that the police in recent years have been subject to increasing pressures:

  1. Finding missing people. Its an important job to try to find missing people but it is taking an inordinate amount of police time – Avon and Somerset police say up to 40% of their time. Whenever a looked-after child or adult goes missing (often) the police are asked to search for them. A tragic few are not found, but most are tracked down locally within 24 hours. This searching is not a waste of time but should the police take on the lions’ share of the work? Providers of private residential care are paid huge amounts (average £3676 per week) to look after adolescents. Should they be providing better supervision and pay for finding missing children? Should every local authority target the frequently missing and work out what is going wrong in their lives?
  2. Domestic abuse. The police are under pressure to respond immediately to and prosecute nearly every domestic abuse incident. Many are serious, but not all are. Criminal sanctions do not reduce abuse, so it makes no sense to prosecute every case. But the police feel obliged to send emergency response teams to nearly every domestic abuse incident, including when neighbours ring up because they heard shouting (eg Boris Johnson case) or if a teenager punches the wall at home. It’s true that these may turn out be serious incidents but, of all DA crimes recorded, only 11% result in a charge or summons, and we know that most DA crimes are single rather than repeat incidents. So somehow we need to target police resources more smartly at the potential high harm incidents and perpetrators.
  3. Dealing with mental health incidents. This is a huge drain on police resources. Around a quarter of emergency response time is spent dealing with people in mental health crisis. Most of are not involved in crime, but police seem to be acting as first responders time and again. Ironically, the successful (and justified) campaign to prevent those with mental health problems being detained in police custody might have led to more police work. Now, when the police pick up someone in crisis, they have to call an ambulance and are often under pressure to sit in the ambulance with the patient, wait while it queues outside the hospital (sometimes for more than an hour) and then wait in A&E. The whole process including paperwork can take a whole shift. The police step in because it is their duty and they are humane. But in some cases there seems to be a dereliction of duty on the part of the NHS. In an extraordinary case reported recently George, a 27 year old with autism and learning difficulties was suffering a severe psychiatric episode. His parents contacted the NHS crisis team who recommended he be sectioned and accommodated on a mental health ward. But no bed was available, so the crisis team left the parents to cope with a very ill son for three days. In desperation they contacted the police who stepped in and helped as much as they could, including spending hours trying to calm him down. Mrs Watkins said of her son’s mental health support: “there was no concern for George, it was almost like they wanted the police to take him, put him in a cell and then they wouldn’t have to worry about it.” Given the NHS has as much resources as the police, this is an untenable situation.
  4. Online crime. Around a third of crime is fraud, but only a tiny proportion of police resources are devoted to it. This neglect of a growing crime is also unsustainable.

If the police are to improve their detection rates and hit impending Home Office imposed targets, something has to give. And the government needs to acknowledge that the police alone cannot reduce crime. If local authorities exclude trouble teenagers from school and close youth clubs, if drug services are cut back and mental health services don’t step up to the plate, can the burden be shouldered by the police?

There was quite a lot of frustration at the conference at the police being asked to do the impossible. And everyone acknowledged that cuts to local authority budgets have knock on effects on crime.

If the police are to carve out time for basic detection and investigation they need to push back and avoid mission creep. I absolutely understand the police’s desire to prevent crime and do good. But, at the conference, I heard of a few great sounding programmes which seemed way outside core policing, including a programme for schools on domestic abuse and a youth rehabilitation programme. Local authorities, YOTs and teachers have the skills to deliver such programmes and need to be funded to do so.

I also have a bee in my bonnet about courts. Why did the police ever offer to run courts from custody suites? It is beyond their expertise and no custody staff want to be involved. The police should resist the cost shunting and the responsibility.

It remains to be seen what targets are imposed on the police but I really hope they push back on what they cannot do and shouldn’t be doing. And ensure that, in trying to do good, their mission does not creep.