Irene Curtis of the Superintendents’ Association is wrong to claim we need bigger police forces. Inevitably the argument is built upon the pressure of cuts. Cuts mean less money. Less money means we need bigger forces, with fewer chief constables.
It’s superficially appealing but it’s wrong. It also ignores the important constitutional reasons for why we have local, independent forces. We have them so that no one force can get too powerful. Local forces are an important check on the most intrusive power of the state. They give the individual at least some hope of challenging official authority. The bigger they are the harder that becomes.
In a string of police scandals – Rotherham, undercover operations, fiddled crime figures – we have heard senior officers claim that they ‘did not know’ what is going on in their forces. That is a product of weak governance, not small forces.
The former Chief Constable of South Yorkshire pleaded ignorance on the Today programme recently, in response to the Rotherham scandal. He claimed that he did not know how his force had been investigating – or not – the rapes, kidnapping and trafficking of girls in his area. He hadn’t seen letters addressed to him.
Other senior officers claimed to the Home Affairs Select Committee that they did not know crime figures were being fiddled by the organisations they lead.
Well, then, they failed. Full stop. It is the job of senior leadership in any organisation to know what is going on. That is what they are paid for. And if things go wrong on their watch, they are paid to take responsibility.
Either they failed because they aren’t very good at their jobs, or they failed because the organisations they lead prevent them from doing their jobs. I suspect it is more the latter.
Forces are too big with too many ranks. As a result senior officers are too remote from the front line. It is never easy to keep abreast of a large organisation but it becomes a lot harder the bigger the organisation.
The police are highly deferential to rank – more so, in my experience than the military. And there are a lot of ranks. Police officers are, rightly, ‘can do’ and eager to please. The result is a lot of people looking upwards, eager to present the best take on things. A conspiracy of optimism pervades the police hierarchy, getting more intense the higher it goes. Sub cultures develop that are never challenged. The bigger the organisation, the bigger the problem.
And the money? Better management and tighter governance will do more for savings than bigger bureaucracies. Cutting the number of ranks – there’s no need for three ranks of chief constable, for a start – would save more with far less disruption than force mergers. Other ranks could go too. Perhaps, even, among superintendents?
We need more, not fewer, police forces. Their leadership – PCCs included – should be paid less and their ranks reduced.
Bringing decisions closer to the front line would deliver bigger savings than reorganisations. More importantly it will protect the liberties the police are there to uphold.