Policing, as the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically re-emphasised, is a critical public service. But it cannot be seen as an open-ended solution to every social and order problem. Over the last half century, we have passed more laws for the police to enforce, added more expectations and duties for them to meet and quietly, and mostly without proper debate, dumped more and more unwanted challenges without ever daring to answer hard questions about the boundaries to the police mission. This is nothing short of setting the police up to fail.
In the USA, this profligacy with the police mission has translated into a movement to “defund” the police that has become inextricably linked with the outrage at the circumstances of George Floyd’s death amidst deep concerns about police use of force and powers of search against black citizens. Yet “defunding” leaves the most vulnerable communities in the USA at greater risk of gun violence and disorder.
In the UK, a decade of austerity has removed significant resources from the police without any serious attempt to answer questions about prioritisation. The consequences have included plunging detection rates, the loss of capacity from neighbourhood policing and an unwelcome return to a reactive, “fire-brigade” policing as officers chase from one incident to another without time to resolve, investigate or support adequately.
If we want better policing, we have to confront the dilemma of prioritisation. As TBI’s new paper on police funding, “Smarter Policing: Principles for a New Approach” sets out very clearly, the police MUST have a better process to help them target the most important issues and the ones where they are best equipped to succeed. The solution that is advanced is based on a combination of a weighted measure drawing on Harm and outcomes. The current model remains rooted in measures that count a murder and a milk bottle theft as one crime. In contrast, the Cambridge Crime Harm Index that I helped to develop with my colleague Professor Lawrence Sherman and my daughter Eleanor, counts the first at more than 5000 and the second as less than one. We achieve this by using the Sentencing Guidelines framework to give a harm score to every crime type that better reflects the harm each crime causes.
We have tested this approach with crimes and harms ranging from street crimes to missing persons and in several other countries. We have been able to show that a such an index consistently demonstrates a sharp concentration of harm. In one study, only 3% of victims experienced more than 80% of the harm. With similar concentrations of harm caused in a small number of locations and by a small number of offenders, there is an opportunity for police to target their most intensive interventions more effectively. However, unless the measure of success accords added value for focusing on harm, the police will be judged to have failed.
The proposal in “Smarter Police principles” is, therefore, worth serious investment. It provides a credible starting point for a fundamentally different approach to thinking about what we want the police to tackle and in what order. The framework needs to be developed further to be able to reflect a weighting for the local issues that neighbourhood policing is designed to tackle. It will also need to be adapted to reflect the very different patterns within cybercrime, where one criminal act – the transmission of a phishing email for example - can potentially result in millions of crime incidents nationally and internationally.
However, this is more than capable of being done. The paper, by drawing on the analogy of the work of NICE in supporting prioritisation of medical treatments, also provides a way of thinking about how the best evidence on effective police interventions might be harnessed to a better system of prioritisation in order to create a virtuous cycle. The current work of the “What Works” centre on policing and crime reduction has so far produced some useful evidence of effective practice but it has been disconnected from the process of assessing priority. Smarter policing requires these two processes to be brought together, preferably in one place and as soon as possible, without a prolonged debates about structures.