22 June 2017

The events of recent weeks have put discussions about police resources firmly back on the agenda. But debate needs to move beyond numbers and think about how to target resources most effectively, says Alice Lilly.

The four terrorist attacks that have struck Britain in the past three months have refocused attention on spending on the police – and the number of officers. During the election campaign, Labour called for 10,000 new officers, while Theresa May promised greater powers for police. In recent days, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, publicly warned that the Metropolitan Police is “stretched”, and the Met is reportedly in talks over its future funding.

The number of police officers fell 14% between 2009 and 2016.

Cumulative change in the number of police officers, 2009-2016

The impact of this fall is clearest in neighbourhood policing, which Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) recently warned is being “eroded”, as officers are increasingly required to do work not specific to their communities. This means that fewer than a fifth of people feel they regularly see uniformed police in their area.

Public confidence in the police has held up, but there are clear signs of pressure in the service.

But our Performance Tracker research also suggests that public confidence in the police remains steady, even as spending has fallen: in fact, 63% rated the police as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ in 2015/16, compared to 56% in 2010/11. Victim satisfaction with police has also held up, with 69% reporting being fairly or very satisfied with the way police dealt with their case.

Yet there are clear signs that pressure is building in the system. The number of officers on long-term sick leave has grown by over a third from 2013 to 2016, and a shortage of detectives has led the Met to introduce a direct-entry scheme.

Debate over resources needs to be about more than the number of officers.

The Queen’s Speech yesterday outlined a commitment to “ensure that police and security services have all the powers they need” to combat terrorism, but there was no announcement of any additional funding or recruitment. It is also reported that the Government’s planned changes to the formula by which the 43 forces across the country are allocated funding, on pause since 2015, are now to be scrapped in order to protect the budgets of larger forces, including the Met – although the overall envelope of police spending is not expected to rise.

Any discussions of police resources need to move beyond numbers alone and take a more sophisticated approach that thinks through the major challenges facing the police, and where resources can best be deployed. If the need is to prevent attacks through intelligence, is it better to spend money on the police or on the intelligence services? If the need is to divert people from extremism, what’s the relative effectiveness of neighbourhood policing versus other interventions?

Asking these questions, and having an open debate that allows the public to understand the case for different options, will help ensure that we can use our resources to better protect ourselves.