Change the Record

As sure as night follows day, the impending budget is producing talk of doom from the police. Some suggest that they will stop investigating ‘minor’ crimes. Others mutter about the need for reorganisations and bigger forces. This old record needs changing.

More thoughtful officers talk about the police in society: what should officers do, what should we as individuals do and what should others do. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

Let us start with the current record. First, investigating crime is the police’s job, not a choice. That four out of five burglaries go unsolved suggests they need to up their game, not opt out of it. If priorities are needed, those priorities are for the police and crime commissioner who will answer for their decisions at the ballot box.

Second, large forces are dangerous. We have independent local forces for a reason. They are there to keep chief constables – and police and crime commissioners for that matter – in their place. We grant the police huge powers. We limit those powers by restricting the size of organisation any one individual can control.

Britain’s multiple forces are often described as a problem of policing. That is not the point. They are not there to make chief constables’ lives easy. They are there to protect our liberties from overweening officialdom. Local forces are as much a part of ‘policing by consent’ as the office of constable.

If that seems an eccentric concern consider two things. Consider our attitudes to the child abuse. We have veered from wilful neglect to something close to moral panic. Consider how much more sinister the implications of our response would be in the hands of a single, monolithic police organisation.

Child abuse is an horrific crime but there is a fine line between encouraging victims to speak out and McCarthyism. By the time you realise an organisation is on the wrong side of that line, the damage is already done: the larger the organisation, the longer that realisation takes and the greater the damage. We should not want a culture of guilt-before-innocence any more than one that ignores a victim.

Consider also the behaviour of the SNP’s behemoth, Police Scotland. It has £15m of government appointed oversight yet struggles to give a straight answer to freedom of information requests and, quite inexcusably, left two people dying in their car for three days. Who will be accountable for that?

There is no evidence to suggest larger forces are more efficient and certainly nothing to suggest they are more effective. Accountability is the problem of British policing, not force size.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council appears to be playing its predecessor, ACPO’s, old records: more power, more money, bigger forces. Equally concerning is that some PCCs seem willing to hum along. Expect to hear more in the coming months, as the reality of budget cuts comes into view.

Most worryingly, this drowns out more important questions about the police role.

Should the police be looking for dementia patients? Or children missing from council foster care? Should they be dealing with people’s mental health problems? Should they be dealing with sexting and bullying in schools?

Would those things be done better by local authorities, the fire service, health services or schools themselves?

These questions are rarely developed, perhaps for fear of being seen to neglect an orthodoxy that talks of ‘safeguarding’, addressing ‘vulnerability’ and supporting ‘victims’. It’s hard to argue that these are not important: they are. The question is, who is responsible: police, council, or perhaps even you and I?

Somehow, we find ourselves in a situation where senior officers feel it is more acceptable to suggest that they stop investigating crimes – which only they can do – than they stop dealing with Mr. Miggins’ dementia – which others can do.

Senior officers need to change the record: today’s questions are not about size and money; they are about flexibility and thought.

PCCs need to sharpen up: they are not there to be seduced by bureaucratic orthodoxies; they are there to replace them with public demands.

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