A couple of weeks ago, the government’s police cuts were looking like a done deal. Now, after three days of the worst rioting Britain has seen in decades, people are wondering whether this is really a good time to start reducing police manpower. David Cameron is insisting that the cuts will go ahead but he is facing challenges, even from those within his own party.
It is certainly true that the police now have more manpower than ever. Police numbers hit a record high in 2009, though they have dropped by around 4,000 since. According to the Police Federation, there are now 257 officers for every 100,000 people, compared with 215 in 1976.
Police spending has shot up too. Last year, the Audit Commission found that policing costs increased by nearly 50 percent over the last decade.
However, over the same period, crime has fallen by 22 percent, according to reported crime figures and by 45 percent according to the British Crime Survey.
Measuring police productivity is extremely difficult. Crime statistics are, at best, wild approximations and are always subject to political fiddling. Trying to measure the impact that the police have on these figures is never going to be an exact science. Nevertheless, a paper written last month for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), which reviewed thirteen pieces of research from around the world, concluded that there is a link between an increase in police numbers and a reduction in crime. It found, for example, that a 10 percent increase in the number of police officers led to a 3 percent decrease in property crime. Against this background, achieving a 22 percent drop in crime for a 50 percent investment doesn’t look too bad.
Now critics might respond by arguing that we had a lot fewer police officers in the 1970s and 1980s but still had less crime. That may be true but we are not living in the 1970s now. Society is more complex, both in terms of demographics and social attitudes. A more mobile and fragmented society demands more from its police officers than it did in the 1970s. Criminals are becoming more sophisticated. Even rioters are getting cleverer, as the last few days have proved. This, as John Band observed, means the police have to match them:
These riots are the difference between WWII and Vietnam: the insurgents didn’t have a front line, but tried to appear, attack and disappear – and the authorities just didn’t know how to handle the new kind of conflict. Adding water cannons and CS gas into the mix wouldn’t have done anything to stop the looters, and I’m sceptical that rubber bullets would have achieved much. Live automatic weaponry would’ve done the job, but if you think that’s an acceptable solution to teenagers robbing shops, then you’re a dangerous lunatic who shouldn’t be allowed out in public.
The only alternative to mass slaughter is to adopt standard counterinsurgency measures. You learn the looters’ tactics, how they’re organised, you disrupt and intercept their communications, you try and infiltrate their groups, you arrest known looters when they’re at home in bed rather than out looting – and you use all the above measures to ensure that looters can’t get to their targets, and that if they do get to a target, then they can’t escape again.
In London, once the cops worked this all this out and managed to mobilise extra troops, the rioting stopped almost immediately (presumably because the looters either got arrested fairly rapidly, or worked out that they would get arrested if they didn’t stop). When the looting began in Manchester and Liverpool, the police had the benefit of a three-day London case study to work into their own plans, so it’s no massive surprise that they were able to end everything in a night.
But a police force that can respond to new developments and change its tactics quickly does not come cheap. The sort of training officers got in the 1980s would not equip them for this. Like the criminals, the cops are cleverer too now. They have to be. Police officers have come in for a lot of criticism over recent days but the fact that they were able to evolve their tactics so quickly to meet the mobile and technology facilitated rioting, the like of which no-one had ever seen before, deserves acknowledgement. In future, police forces will have to be smarter and more intelligence-led. That means more training and more technology, neither of which will be cheap.
Perhaps, rather than compare police numbers with the past, it makes more sense to compare them with other countries. Civitas found that the police numbers in England and Wales are among the lowest in Europe, relative to population size. For example, France has 345 officers per 100,000 people and Germany has 304, compared to Britain’s 263. These are the sort of numbers you need to police a large, complex international economy.
As a perceived alternative to reducing the number of police officers, there will be calls to save costs by cutting back office staff. There is almost certainly some scope for doing this. The Audit Commission reckons that, by improving efficiency and sharing some services, around £137 million could be taken of the police budget. But the government wants to save £1.9 billion. Back office efficiencies are not going to come anywhere near that.
There has been a lot of hot air about cutting support costs but there is not much evidence that support functions are seriously over-staffed. For example, the HR ratio reported by the Audit Commission is 1:66, that’s one HR person for every 66 staff.
Capgemini’s calculations for the 2009 Pre-Budget Report gave the HR ratio (including training staff) for all organisations as 1:70. Bearing in mind that police HR functions are likely to have more training staff than most other organisations, a ratio of 1:66 doesn’t look too bad.
As Michael Carty said yesterday, the ‘form fillers’ are essential if a police force is to be fully effective. Chopping back these support functions will have an impact on frontline staff. Already, uniformed officers are having to cover some of the back office jobs which have been shed. If the government wants police officers to spend more time recruiting their own staff, fixing their own IT problems and calculating their own budgets, fine, but it will leave them with less time to go out and suppress riots.
Inevitably, the government’s proposed cuts will significantly reduce the number of police officers. Efficiency savings and cuts to ‘bureaucracy’ will only achieve a fraction of the savings demanded by the government. Police staffing levels will be cut by somewhere between 34,000 and 65,000 depending on whose projections turn out to be true. Given what we know about the impact of police numbers on crime, it is difficult to see how this will not lead to the increase in lawlessness that many people fear.
Civitas warned earlier this year that 2011 could be “The start of a great decade for criminals.” The last few days have been certainly good for them. If police spending is cut by 20 percent, things could be about to get a whole lot better.
Update: This excellent piece from Patrick Hadfield – A contrarian view: the rioters are a skilful mob. Skilful mobs must be met by skilful police and skilful police cost money.