What are the Police for? – Review

Onthebeat101 reviews the Radio4 feature on the future of the police force, which was perfectly timed to coincide with Home Secretary Theresa May’s announcement on remuneration on Monday. (Listen again here)

What is the police’s role?

Mark Easton kicked of his 3 part series by getting right to the heart of the question. “When things go wrong we expect the police to be there. But should we?” Looking at the numbers of officers and PCSOs the force will be losing over the next couple of years, perhaps not.

What is the role of the police? Well, May has said they have one job only, to “reduce crime”. Easton does however extract a semi-retraction from policing minister Nick Herbert. It’s apparently the primary role, but not the only one. And the Tories are confident that the public are on board. Throughout the programme, the officers of Thames Valley police service respond to this and the reforms proposed by Tom Winsor’s report.

Preventing crime through “courtesy”

There’s some historical background too. Robert Peel’s original force of 1829 made no reference to reducing crime, investigation, or chasing criminals. It was about “preventing crime” through “courtesy”.

Thames Valley Chief Constable Sarah Thornton thinks the cutting/preventing distinction is false, and is happy to be judged wholly on the crime rates in her area. What is changing is how we cut/prevent crime.

Health and social services are important here. But as the Thames Valley Police Federation rep Sgt. Graham Smith says, around 25% of police activity is not crime fighting but “putting a plaster on the cracks in society”.

Police help other services

Coming in as a last resort when other services cannot help, or, are just not open at the time. “After 4pm we are the only service there”. They have little choice. The police could save money by stepping back not doing the work of other agencies. But it will just end up not getting done. Thames Valley took 1000 mentally ill people to safety last year.

Ultimately the conundrum is this: the police need to make savings at the same time as other services and agencies are being cut at at least the same rate. Councils are failing to provide the social care they used to.

Ordinarily this would put great strain on the police force as the last resort picking up the pieces. But this also reduces their ability to “step back” from social roles. It’s likely we will find that we will have to rely on the “plaster” services of the police more, not less.

Police must deal with community demands

When Easton is out on the road with PC Murray MacLean, MacLean tells him the level of accountability and the expectations of the public are changing. To keep the tenet of “policing by consent” in one’s mind is to not make any judgement on whether these changes are good.

The police must deal with what the community demands. But surely only one of Nick Herbert and Murray MacLean can be right. Citizens are either demanding “rat catchers” or demanding more community involvement from their police?

Unless we are just demanding more and more and better and better of everything. At a time of 20% budget cuts, that’s not going to be possible.

The second instalment airs at 8pm Monday 6th Feb and focuses on community policing. Expect PCSOs to feature prominently. @onthebeat101 will be live tweeting and reviewing it again.