There are 14% fewer police officers than in 2009, reflecting sharp cuts to police spending. Despite poor morale, official inspection ratings and public satisfaction with the police remain steady. However, victim dissatisfaction is slowly rising, and the public perceive the police to be less visible. Recent terrorist attacks, alongside increased criminal activity and the changing nature of demands on the police, have provoked renewed debate over police numbers.

Spending on the police decreased by 17% from 2009/10 to 2016/17.

Change in spending on police in England and Wales

Day-to-day spending on the police fell from £13bn in 2009/10 to £10.9bn in 2016/17. This amounted to a 17% real-terms decrease in spending over the period. Responsibility for implementing reductions was entrusted to 43 individual police forces. The Home Office encouraged collaboration between forces, sharing of best practice and reductions in back-office staff as a means of doing more with less, but it did not mandate a single uniform approach to managing spending reductions.

In June 2017, it was reported that the Government’s planned changes to the formula by which the 43 forces across the country are allocated funding, on hold since 2015, are to be scrapped. This is meant to protect the budgets of larger forces, including the Metropolitan Police, although the overall spending envelope is not expected to rise.[1] The status of the proposed new funding formula remains unclear.

There are 14% fewer police officers than in 2009.

Change in number of police officers

As of the end of March 2017, there were 123,142 police officers across England and Wales, 14% fewer than the 143,769 in March 2009, and 0.7% fewer than last year. This represents the lowest number of officers at the end of a financial year since comparable records began in 1996.[2]

The functions and forms of policing have also changed, leading HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) to express concern about levels of neighbourhood police.[3] Other police functions have seen their numbers rise in the past year. There were 6,278 armed officers at the end of March, an 11% increase on March 2016, reflecting drives by the Home Office to boost armed police capability.[4] However, this remains below the 6,976 armed officers in March 2010.[5]* The former Metropolitan Police Commissioner warned in February of difficulties in recruiting armed officers, due to a combination of high trainee failure rates and a reluctance to serve in such a role.[6] In the wake of the five terrorist incidents across Britain since March, the subject of police numbers has received renewed attention, with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner publicly warning that the service is being “stretched” as it tries to respond to a broader range of crime, ranging from terror attacks to knife crime.[7]

However, it is difficult to understand the level of demand that the police face. Crime rates are one possible indicator of demand, but there are different ways of measuring crime and these are subject to different limitations. Figures for police-recorded crime showed that in the year to March 2017 there was an increase of 10% in overall crime, and an 18% increase in violence against the person.[8] By contrast, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), an estimate of crime based on people’s experiences, found that overall crime fell by 7% in the same period, and levels of violent crime remained flat.[9]** 

The variation in these figures points to the difficulties of accurately measuring changes in crime: for example, recorded crime rates may reflect changes in reporting practices, rather than genuine increases in crime. But survey data do not capture ‘victimless’ crimes, such as drug possession.[10] As well as these limitations, crime rates do not cover all demands on the police: it has previously been estimated that most police time is spent dealing with non-crime incidents, such as assisting those with mental health problems or providing public reassurance.[11]

While it is difficult to understand the level of demand, the data suggest that the nature of demand is changing, with cyber-crime becoming a key concern. Experimental data from the CSEW on fraud and computer misuse offences found 5.2m such crimes in 2017, similar to numbers of all other forms of crime. The changing nature of crime raises questions about the role and resources of the police in combating less traditional forms of crime.[12]

Crime rates may not give us a complete sense of demands on the police workforce, but they can help to give a sense of the levels of police activity. Higher rates of police- recorded crime mean more work for the police, regardless of whether the increase is due to changes in reporting patterns, suggesting that police activity has increased in the past year. This is also suggested by data on the volume of emergency 999 calls received by police forces. Data collected by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) found that the volume of emergency calls has risen 11% in the last year.[13] Individual forces have reported rising call volumes: for example, North Yorkshire Police received 6,115 emergency 999 calls between 2 July and 27 July 2017, compared with 4,920 in the same period last year, a 25% increase.[14]

The number of officers on long-term sick leave is beginning to fall, but remains far above 2013 levels.

Number of police officers on long-term sick leave

Rates of long-term sick leave can be an indicator of workforce morale. As of March 2017, 2,424 police officers were on long-term sick leave, compared with 2,488 at the same point in 2016. This is the first fall in long-term sick leave since 2014. However, the number of those on leave remains considerably higher than 2013, when 1,928 officers were on long-term sick leave. Despite the fall, forces have reported an increase in the number of officers on sick leave as a result of mental health problems - although this can cover a range of issues from stress to family bereavement, and may also reflect better awareness of mental health issues.[15]

The latest survey of pay and morale, conducted by the Police Federation, found that 60.2% of respondents reported low personal morale, compared with 55.9% in 2016 - but below the 70.2% low morale in 2015’s survey. Meanwhile, 93.5% of respondents reported low police service morale, the same as in 2016. This low morale is driven by concerns about pay and workload. In the past year, the proportion of officers stating that their morale is negatively affected by the workload and responsibilities has risen by nine percentage points, to 61.1%. Furthermore, 72.9% reported that their morale is negatively affected by their pay and benefits.[16] In September, the Government announced that officers would receive a 2% pay rise, comprising a 1% basic increase and a 1% bonus for 2017/18 – breaking the cap on public sector pay.[17]

Public confidence in the police is steady.

Percentage of people rating the police as 'good' or 'excellent'

One important indicator of the quality and performance of the police is public perception, especially as the British policing model relies on consent.[18] Crime rates are not a good indicator of police quality as they may be affected by a range of factors other than the police: for example, reduced rates of vehicle theft may be caused by improvements in vehicle security features. As measured by the CSEW, overall public satisfaction with the police remained constant at 62% in 2016/17, a one percentage- point decrease on 2015/16, but in line with satisfaction levels since 2011/12.

However, there are signs of public concern with some aspects of the service, particularly the visibility of the police. The percentage of respondents to the CSEW reporting high visibility of foot patrols has declined significantly, from 39% in the year to March 2010 to 22% in the year to March 2017. The proportion reporting that they “never” see police foot patrols rose from 27% in the year to March 2010, to 39% in the year to March 2017.

Victim dissatisfaction is rising.

Victim satisfaction with the police

Victim satisfaction rates also offer an important indicator of public perceptions of the police, and its performance. In 2017, 32% of victims were not satisfied with the way that the police dealt with an incident they reported – the first time that dissatisfaction has risen above the 2010 level of 31%, and continuing an upwards trend in dissatisfaction. At the same time, the proportion of victims satisfied was 69%, two percentage points below 2016 levels.

But most forces are still rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by the Inspectorate.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary Police Effectiveness, Efficiency and Legitimacy assessments of police forces

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), now HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, conducts inspections of each of the 43 forces across England and Wales, assessing three different areas of performance: their effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy.***

In 2015/16, at the end of the second complete cycle of PEEL inspections, 88% of forces were rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ on legitimacy (the same as 2014/15), while 81% of forces were good or outstanding on efficiency, a two percentage-point improvement on the year before. On the theme of effectiveness, 67% of forces were judged good or outstanding, a nine percentage-point increase on 2014/15.

The number of forces requiring improvement on efficiency and legitimacy has not changed from the previous year. On the theme of effectiveness, 30% of forces were rated as requiring improvement in 2015/16, down from 42% last year. Yet at the same time, HMIC raised a “warning flag” about moves by some forces to “artificially suppress demand” by, for example, downgrading emergency calls in order to allow a slower response time.[19]


*     Data for 2016 to 2017 were collected under a new definition of ‘armed officer’, which extends to all officers authorised to use firearms. The Home Office states that the effect of this change in definition is small, and therefore that 2017 figures are comparable to previous years.

**     Excluding fraud and computer misuse offences, to ensure comparability with previous years’ statistics.

***     HMIC defines effectiveness as “an assessment of whether appropriate services are being provided by each police force and how well those services work”; efficiency as “an assessment of whether the manner in which each force provides its services represents value for money”; and legitimacy as “an assessment of whether, in providing services, each force operates fairly, ethically and within the law”. See HMIC (2016) State of Policing, p. 38.