The Mixed Economy Approach to Policing

A Letter from England, Nigel Whiskin, July 1st 2004

The good news from England is that the crime rates are now at their lowest since 1981 and, with a few exceptions, continue to fall.  Given the scepticism about numbers – statistics, statistics and damn lies – the British Crime Survey confirms that that your chances of becoming a crime victim are also at their lowest for a quarter of a century.  Domestic burglary and car crime have been slashed by nearly a third over the last decade.

Police and crime prevention practitioners might expect some applause for what is in theory a significant success story and Government recognition for its ‘tough on crime’ strategy.

But the bad news is that the public just do not recognise the improvements.  Far from it, only one in ten people believe the crime situation has improved and some sixty percent think it is getting worse, a significant number say that it is getting much worse.

 Why should this be?  We have:-

·        More police officers than ever before

·        Supported by 5000 Community Support Officers

·        8000 or so Neighbourhood Wardens

·        The highest prison population in Europe at 75,000

·        A private security industry that employs some 400,000 staff and which is about to be regulated

 The investment in driving down the crime numbers and making our streets and neighbourhoods safe and secure is massive.  We are spending more on law and order than we are on the armed forces – we have more police officers than soldiers!

Of course public scepticism about crime is fuelled by the manner in which the media report crime.  The crime numbers have gone down significantly but the amount of coverage given to crime has stayed the same.  And just as our expectations about our standard of living have risen over the last twenty years, so have our expectations about ‘liveability’, quality of life issues of which feeling safe is high on peoples agenda. As the population ages it is not unreasonable to assert that there is a certain hardening of attitudes towards behaviour as the grey beards and blue rinses look back to their golden years and recall a calmer, more peaceful society – whether it actually was so is another matter.

On a Tuesday last September, the Government took a snapshot of reports of anti-social behaviour – street drunkenness, abandoned cars, vandalism, graffiti, litter, fly tipping, youth nuisance, noisy neighbours, stray dogs and all that contributes to urban – and rural – squalor and that triggers a sense of insecurity, a sense that our streets are unsafe and our communities are out of control. This was not a scientific exercise but rather a snapshot of what is going on in our towns and neighbourhoods across the country.

Over those 24 hours on a weekday last September, there were some 66,000 reports of anti-social behaviour, behaviours that cost local authorities over £3 billion a year to put right and that cause so much distress to ordinary people going about their daily lives. And if, again very unscientifically, one extrapolates the figures and checks with recent British Crime Survey results, it looks as if that whilst crime has gone down, anti-social behaviour has gone up by roughly a corresponding amount.  And since by its nature most anti-social behaviour is very public and witnessed by many people, it explains why most people think that the crime problem is getting worse.

Government has reacted to all this by introducing Anti-Social Behaviour legislation that gives police and local authorities a range of new powers and sanctions to crack down on those whose uncivil behaviour cause offence to the majority.  It is a kind of ‘zero tolerance’ approach. What the public want is more visible policing, more police on the pavements, to reassure and protect, and to deal with offensive behaviour.

So the challenge for police chiefs is about how to find more trained uniformed officers to work the streets in our town centres and in our neighbourhoods, how to establish dedicated neighbourhood police teams that don’t get called away when ever there are major incidents or serious criminal investigations or national events like visiting Heads of State.  At the same time in the UK the police have the unenviable task of trying to protect the public from terrorist attacks, the threat of which is said to be more menacing than ever before in recent history.

The introduction of 5,000 Police Community Support Officers – modelled roughly on the lines of the Netherlands City Guards and resisted for many years by British Police Chiefs on the grounds of ‘third class’ policing and weakening the ‘thin blue line’ – are part of the effort to increase police visibility.

But there are other innovations that are freeing trained police officers for front line duties. For example:-

One police area has contracted with a security company to build five new custody suites.  Working to the police, the company also:

·        Manages and maintains the custody suites

·        Feeds prisoners

·        Provides forensic medical services

·        Provides interpreters

·        Takes fingerprints and DNA samples

·        Manages Identity parades – not the traditional line up but with photographs on lap top computers

The introduction of new technology and business processes has reduced the time it takes to book prisoners into the custody suites by a third to nine minutes.  This may not sound much but multiplied by 45,000 it adds up to five police officers a year! 

All in all about 155 police officers have been freed up for front line work, contributing to a 30% increase in arrests over the previous year at a time when crime levels are falling.

Other Police Chiefs are looking very hard at what back room and near to core services can be outsourced to the business sector.  A recent consultation exercise with one police service exposed a number of opportunities for releasing police officers and saving money.  The areas of work that were considered suitable for outsourcing included:

 ·        Managing crime scenes

·        Carrying out door to door enquires

·        Managing lost, stolen and seized property

·        Reviewing cctv footage and so on

The anticipated savings were estimated as being in the order of £4 million a year!

Of course not everyone believes in the privatisation of public services and for some the privatisation of the police of all public services goes against their principles about the very nature of civil society and the responsibilities of Government to provide a safe society for all its members.  However many would argue that outsourcing is not privatisation – it is doing what businesses have done for years in buying in services or products from specialist suppliers in order to reduce costs, add value and constantly up grade the quality of service or product.

What we are looking at is in fact a ‘mixed economy’ approach to delivering a modern police service.  The police retain operational control and most of the interface with the public.  The mixed economy approach means bringing the best of the public and business sectors together to work in partnership to release trained officers to frontline duties, relieve the police from the burden of backroom services and, where appropriate, bring new technology and business processes to the task of reducing crime, reassuring the public and protecting us from the threat of terrorism.

It is a bold step.  It doesn’t mean the end of the British Bobby but it does mean that police managers will become co-ordinators of the services that are needed to create safe and clean environments, not just the sole providers.