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The role of the police has become too broad

In an age of austerity, officers need to stop taking responsibility for social problems that can be better dealt with by others. 

Officers need to take on less responsibility.
"Politicians have sought to put more and more duties onto police officers." Photograph: Getty Images.

Like their counterparts across local government, and those other parts of the public sector not lucky enough to be protected by "ring-fences", the police have had to face up to dramatic and unprecedented cuts to their budgets since 2010. How they have chosen to respond to this challenge has fallen largely to newly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). The choices they have made are already beginning to transform the policing landscape in profound and sometimes unexpected ways.

The exception is London, where PCC powers are delegated in law to the unelected deputy mayor Stephen Greenhalgh. Yet the capital faces the same hard choices as the rest of the country – Boris Johnson has ordered the Met to find £500m in savings by 2016 – and Greenhalgh has set about this task with vigour, implementing a "20-20-20 Challenge": to cut key neighbourhood crimes by 20 per cent, boost confidence by 20 per cent, and cut costs by 20 per cent.

But the deputy mayor’s ambitions do not end there. In a new report out today from the think-tank Reform, Greenhalgh and co-author Blair Gibbs call for a fundamental re-think of the whole policing function. They argue that the role of the police in recent decades has become too broad: that politicians have sought to put more and more duties onto police officers, and that the can-do culture of the police themselves has led senior officers to take on responsibility for social problems better dealt with by others. They call on PCCs to take hard decisions about what activities might be stopped outright (such as responding to abusive behaviour online) and where other agencies must start to play a larger role (such as dealing with the complex needs of mental health patients).

Of course, for many years, the easiest way to dodge these sorts of hard decisions was to increase the precept that the police can place on council taxpayers. In the last two years  of the Brown administration alone, the government was forced to take capping action on twelve separate occasions against police authorities seeking to increase their precepts, in one case by a staggering 79 per cent.  These sorts of excesses have ended with Eric Pickles's introduction of council tax referendums. Yet many PCCs are once again looking to pass on costs to local ratepayers, in the hope that the extra revenue will see them through. Greenhalgh and Gibbs have little time for this, arguing that "raising the precept by the maximum permitted amount without triggering a referendum is no substitute for a radical reshaping of the service to prevent crime and tackle rising demand."

But what right does the deputy mayor have to lecture his democratically-elected colleagues? After all, this is the man who has overseen the wholesale closure of police stations across the capital and who now wants to introduce water canon as a public order tool.  Reform commissioned an opinion poll from Populus to coincide with the publication of today’s report. Strikingly, what it found was that the public does not think that policing has deteriorated since 2010: nationally, around half of respondents said performance had stayed the same with the proportion saying it had improved equal to the proportion saying things had got worse. Yet the standout difference was the capital. Despite the terrible riots of 2011, the survey found Londoners were much more likely to say the Met’s performance had improved (29 per cent), with 40 per cent saying it had stayed the same and just 10 per cent saying it had worsened.

Not all will agree with Greenhalgh and Gibbs's diagnosis, and some will say their medicine is too harsh. Yet there is no denying that the deputy mayor has shown that it is possible to deliver radical reform while holding council tax down and keeping the public on side.  With future austerity an absolute certainty, PCCs across the country should pay close attention to the arguments in this report.

Richard Harries is the deputy director of Reform