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The game of chasing police targets

Penelope Gibbs
09 Jan 2020

Oooohhh, Sanctioned Detections are back! How very 2010. Now a key performance indicator, again. Patently due to pressure from the top about the public finding out how many people are RUI/NFA. The scrutiny is supposed to “encourage” us to get more Santioned Detections.

“Ha! Let the games begin”

“It is a really stupid game. So back to where a ‘simple’ PND [penalty notice] for a shop theft of low value scores the same as a charge for a ‘complicated’, time consuming assault involving many witness and medical statements. They prove nothing other than lessons of history have not been learnt”.

This twitter exchange between police officers (serving and retired) was from December 16th and was the first indication that the government/the police were considering bringing back “sanction detections” or targets for the numbers of arrests/cautions made by police. Then last weekend the Sunday Times reported that “police fear return of targets as price of 20,000 recruits… Bill Skelly, the chief constable of Lincolnshire police, who is involved in negotiations with the Home Office, said the government was “going down the road of targets”, which would create “unintended or perverse consequences”.

The police are clearly attempting to get their attack in first. And opposition to targets unites both senior and rank and file officers.

We should all be concerned by any prospect of a return to targets for “offences brought to justice”. New Labour loved targets and in April 2004, a public service agreement target went into effect to increase the number of “Offences Brought to Justice” (OBTJ) across police forces. This target did not distinguish between different types of offences brought to justice, nor did it distinguish between sanctions – prosecutions or out of court disposals. Police were simply asked to increase the number of cautions/penalty notices/arrests for which they were responsible. The targets were in place for four long years and led to many a perverse outcome.

A blanket target incentivises police to nick the easiest people to catch. Unfortunately teenagers are often easy to apprehend – many commit minor crimes and they are not good at covering their tracks. So in the mid 2000s teenagers were prey for target-hungry police and the number of “first time entrants” shot up. “Bringing children into the system for crimes such as shop theft and minor disorder (playground fights) may have served to accelerate criminal careers and make harsher penalisation more likely. As the YJB put it in 2007, “although not mutually exclusive, there is some tension between the target for justice agencies to increase the number of offences brought to justice and our corporate target of reducing the number of first-time entrants to the youth justice system. Minor offences are disproportionately committed by the young. Therefore, as greater volumes of lower order offences are detected, so the number of young people who offend who are brought to justice increases.” The OBTJ targets probably contributed to the rise in the size of the child custody population in this period.

Targets are easy to game. If you have rewards for numbers of offences dealt with, there is every incentive to avoid dealing with the most difficult offences – complicated fraud, rape, sexual abuse. These take time and diligence to investigate. Victims may be reluctant to engage and need a lot of support to give their evidence. Yet the targets for OBTJ were just straight numbers with no more reward for dealing with criminal damage than domestic abuse. There was also a strong incentive for police to give cautions for minor offences which could have been diverted from the formal system.

I can absolutely understand the government’s concern about falling arrests and prosecutions, but it is clear that no police want to return to the bad old days of sanction detections/targets. We need to work out what are the key barriers to detection of crimes like burglary, theft and fraud, very few of which are currently investigated, let along resolved.

The challenge for the police is to find a way of proving their efficiency and effectiveness without the use of targets, in an era where so few reported crimes result in criminal sanctions. As Gavin Hales wrote in a prescient blog a year ago: “So where are we now? What does ‘efficient’, ‘effective’ or even ‘good’ policing look like? As Sara Thornton acknowledged at the NPCC/APCC summit, the public value baby seems to have been thrown out with the targets culture bathwater, and nothing has been put in its place”.