Most of us do not spend a lot of time thinking about what the police do every day. We just want them to be there when things go wrong. The reality is that over time we have asked more and more of our police as modern life and crime have presented new threats to our sense of security. It was my fate to be police minister at a time when the “thin blue line” of cliché was clearly struggling to meet the increasingly complex demands on it. The noisy politics around that should not distract from the uncomfortable truth that modern demand on the police is always likely to outstrip supply. That requires real leadership in making the best use of the significant public money we invest in policing each year. As in our health service, it requires leaders to make choices about what to prioritise and to be accountable to the public they serve for those decisions.
This stimulating paper from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change argues that it is time for police leadership to be better supported by a clearer strategic framework for allocating inevitably limited resources. Parallels are drawn with how NICE is now embedded in our NHS system. Policing is of course different, but it is hard to argue with the principle that decisions on prioritisation should be rooted in common data and the best available evidence on “what works”. This becomes even more important in the highly fragmented landscape of our police system. We need to find a better balance between encouraging innovation and being more systemic in understanding what works and then applying it more consistently on behalf of the public.
Underpinning the whole argument is the paramount importance of sustaining public confidence in our police system. From many private conversations with chief constables and police crime commissioners, I think the diagnostic of this paper will strike a chord: They need more support in their decision-making and a more consistent basis for explaining those decisions to the public they are accountable to. As in education and health, it is time for a much more radical approach in gathering and sharing information on “what works”. Historic initiatives have been too timid. It is time to step up and be much more strategic in our approach. The current government will recognise that the argument goes with the grain of thinking that committed them to the National Crime Lab, rooted in a desire to drive operational improvement through better use of data, evidence and innovation.
Like all stimulating papers, the argument of this paper moves from principle into detailed suggestions that will generate debate and merit tough examination. The authors are honest in paying tribute to the pioneering work of Lawrence Sherman and others in this field. I welcome it as a valuable contribution to the debate on how we improve one of our most important public services.
Former Conservative Member of Parliament (from 2005 to 2019), and Minister for Police and the Fire Service from 2017 to 2019
The pressures and demands facing modern policing are changing in ways that have profound implications for future policy, not least with respect to how the police are funded. There are two major reasons for this. First, the continuing fall in overall “volume crime”[_] has masked important changes in the pattern of modern crime. There has been a growth in high-harm offences, such as violence and sexual offences, and more crime has shifted from the public into the private sphere, including online. These offences tend to be more complex to investigate and thus costly to deal with, yet democratic pressure tends to focus on crimes that take place in the public realm. As a result, while the total volume of crime has fallen, pressure on the police has actually risen in recent years.
Second, the demands facing the police are broader than was the case a decade ago. A growing proportion of time is spent identifying, protecting and supporting those who are vulnerable, whether responding to domestic abuse victims, tackling child sexual exploitation or investigating missing children. Indeed, a police force’s ability to successfully deal with vulnerability is now considered by the Inspectorate as a “core indicator of its overall effectiveness”.[_] There is also evidence that non-crime demand is sucking up more resources, including the need to respond to mental health crises and, increasingly, the need to enforce social distancing rules.
Faced with rising demand and squeezed budgets, the obvious response would normally be to ruthlessly prioritise finite resources. However, in recent years, the police have been put in an impossible position by the government, effectively told to “do everything”.[_] On the one hand, they are required to respond to public priorities, locally determined by police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and visible in Police and Crime Plans.[_] On the other, they are being pushed by both the Home Office and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) to respond to increasingly complex (and harmful) threats identified at the national level, as well as the rise in vulnerability.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and its severe impact on the public finances, the funding situation for policing is likely to continue to be very tight for the foreseeable future. Prioritisation in policing can no longer afford to be fudged. It is inevitable that chief constables will need to make tough choices about how to allocate scarce resources.[_]
Some of these choices are bound to be controversial or unpopular. Yet currently, the basis for these choices remains unclear and under-discussed, which hampers police chiefs’ ability to make difficult decisions that are seen as legitimate. Despite the existence of PCCs, there is weak accountability when it comes to how the police choose to spend their time. This urgently needs to be addressed, with the issues highlighted in this report exposed to public debate.
It is clear that a new model to support police in prioritising their resources is needed. It is a difficult task – but it has been achieved before. This report proposes new models for prioritisation, with the central proposal being the creation of a new National Centre for Excellence in Policing, based on the successful NICE model within health care. It argues that doing so would enable the police to manage demand in a more strategic way, building transparency and clarity into the prioritisation process to support chiefs and PCCs currently criticised from all angles. Most importantly, it would help the police to achieve the best value for money possible for the citizens they serve.