You can do more with less. Figures showing a 2% fall in police officer numbers across the country last year will no doubt prompt warnings of a crime explosion. An 8% fall in PCSO numbers will be used to proclaim the death of neighbourhood policing. Both are simplistic and wrong.
First, those suggestions don’t fit well with the crime figures. Crime is falling even as officer numbers fall. That means that those officers who remain are becoming more effective. It might be that IT is helping them do more. It might be less paperwork tying them to their desks. It might be that changes in technology and society are helping to reduce crime anyway. It’s probably a bit of each and more. But the link between officer numbers and crime is a political myth.
Secondly, changes in the relative costs of constables and PCSOs are bound to lead to a different mix. A new PC now costs less than a new PCSO to employ (though their whole-life costs are higher). PCSOs also have much more flexible employment terms and can be made redundant, unlike PCs. That means PCSOs have borne the brunt of any savings programmes. It shouldn’t be too surprising that forces are shifting, relatively, towards PCs.
PCSOs have been an enormous success but let’s not forget they were introduced by the last Labour Government largely to side step an obstructive Police Federation and its refusal to reform officers’ terms. PCSOs took up much of the vital local work that officers became too expensive, and sometimes too haughty, to do.
Thankfully, those days are fading – though the financial challenges aren’t. The logical thing would be to make officers’ terms more flexible but we seem some way from that. The other logical thing would be to reduce the number of ranks and focus back on core policing, preventing and detecting crime. Do less so you can do it better. That is the essence of professionalism.
A reduction in PCSOs does not need to mean lees crime prevention, unless the PCC and Chief Constable want it to. Prevention is – or ought to be – the responsibility of constables as much as anyone else. Provided PCCs and chiefs are prioritising the value of prevention, the work will continue. And, if they aren’t, their public will have something to say.
In Dyfed Powys, we have increased our officer numbers by 30, maintained PCSOs and reduced operating costs by £3.47m (out of a budget of £98m) this year. There’s more we can do with IT. There’s more we can do with the public to support crime prevention.
If there’s anything I have learnt in the last 18 months, it’s that budget cuts don’t necessarily mean fewer frontline officers. And they certainly don’t need to mean less neighbourhood policing.
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