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The unseen cost of policing in austerity

By Megan O’Neill

It will not come as news to say that the public police are working under challenging conditions. Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, there have been wide-ranging and deep cuts to the funding of public services, the police included. This was the institution which once enjoyed a privileged position as the “go-to” service for political parties to improve themselves in the eyes of the electorate by being “tough on crime” through ever increasing police numbers. Numbers of police officers and staff rose year on year from 2000 to 2010, an increase of 13.7%. All that has now changed, and the most recent statistics show that the police service has now reduced in size by 11%, and is roughly equivalent to where it was in 2001. While police officers themselves cannot be made redundant, vacant positions are not being filled when officers leave or retire. Police and Community Support Officers (PCSOs) can be made redundant, and this has happened in a few areas, as well as vacancies not being filled. What does this mean for being “tough on crime”?

Well, to be honest, not much on face value. As any good first year Criminology student should be able to tell you, the overall crime rate has been falling more or less steadily since 1995. This drop in crime started before police numbers rose, and occurred in other countries as well where police numbers may not have changed to the degree they did in England and Wales. The cause for the drop in crime is the subject of much debate, and will not be pursued in depth here. However, what is clear is that the sheer number of police officers in a police force does not have a direct link with the amount of crime that area experiences. What is more important is what is done with those officers, and this is where my concern with the current state of policing lies.

UK police vehicles

While the last Labour government regularly pumped up the number of officers to redress their image of being soft on crime, they also made two significant changes to policing practice. One was the introduction of PCSOs in 2002 and the other was the national roll-out of Neighbourhood Policing in 2008. While both may have been derided in the beginning as being more for show than of any real substance, I feel both have made significant changes in the relationship of the police to many local areas and with this has come a reorientation to the police occupational culture itself. Research I have conducted on partnership work and PCSOs suggests that these changes have made some sections of the police more open to working with those outside of their organisation, has enhanced the commitment the police have to crime prevention and long-term problem solving, and has led to better information sharing and relationships between the police and local residents.

To be clear – I am not arguing that all is fine and well in policing. However, the situation we have now is far better than what was the case in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather than “community policing” referring to police officers in panda cars whizzing through residential areas, going from job to job, we now have officers and staff who walk their beats, get to know many of the people and places within it and have the time to attend to the “small stuff”. By this I mean the anti-social, low-level crimes and incivilities which may not set performance targets on fire, but which mean a great deal to the daily lives of thousands of people. Officers, usually PCSOs, can take the time to find out about these concerns and either address the matter themselves or find the most appropriate partner agency to do so (the staff of which they know by name and often have their numbers programmed into their mobile phones). In return, residents start to build trust in their local neighbourhood team, which may develop over time into information sharing of interest to constables and detectives.

However, all this is now in danger of being eroded. The budget cuts mean that the officers and staff who remain in neighbourhood teams have much heavier workloads, including the PCSOs. It is far more difficult now to attend to the “small stuff” and to conduct visible patrols. Partner agencies are also facing severe budget cuts and this will impact on their ability to work collaboratively with the police as they have fewer resources to share. This means that the police lose opportunities to make connections in their local communities and build valuable social capital. Residents are not getting the attention they desire from their local police and so will have fewer reasons to trust them. In addition to these losses to police practice and community relationships is a much less visible but no less significant loss – the reorientation of the police occupational culture. Police officers became more open to working with partners, PCSOs, residents and to consider long-term problem solving once they had experienced the benefits of doing so. Many of the traditional hostilities towards the “other” were reducing noticeably among the neighbourhood officers with whom I have conducted research. This widening of the police world view will, I fear, also be lost in the current budget structures. This is not a savings for policing – it is a very high cost indeed.

Dr Megan O’Neill is the Chair of the British Society of Criminology Policing Network, and a lecturer at the Scottish Institute of Policing Research, University of Dundee. She is the author of “Ripe for the Chop or the Public Face of Policing? PCSOs and Neighbourhood Policing in Austerity” (available to read for free for a limited time) in Policing.

The full article will be available this June in Policing, A Journal of Policy and Practice, volume 8.3. This peer-reviewed journal contains critical analysis and commentary on a wide range of topics including current law enforcement policies, police reform, political and legal developments, training and education, patrol and investigative operations, accountability, comparative police practices, and human and civil rights

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Image credit: UK police vehicles at the scene of a public disturbance. © jeffdalt via iStockphoto.

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