The police service successfully implemented large spending reductions over the past six years. Despite fewer police officers on the ground and signs of stress in the workforce, public confidence in the service has grown. Traditional crime, such as burglary, continues to fall, but the rise in cybercrime and allegations of historical sexual abuse are placing new demands on the police and pose a challenge for the future.
Spending on the police decreased by 17% from 2009/10 to 2015/16.
Spending on the police fell from £13.1bn in 2009/10 to £10.9bn in 2015/16. This amounted to a 17% real-terms decrease in spending over six years. 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 a single uniform approach was not mandated.
The number of police officers fell by 13.7% between 2009 and 2016…
The workforce is a major component of police spending (the NAO put the figure at 79%), making it an obvious target for spending reductions. Some police forces froze recruitment, and the Winsor Review (March 2016) recommended reducing starting salaries for constables, introducing freezes to pay progression, and removing some allowances.
The reduced size of the workforce has manifested itself most visibly in the area of neighbourhood policing. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) found that neighbourhood teams are being stretched as officers are increasingly responding to emergency calls and investigating crime, in addition to their regular prevention and community engagement work. The public has noticed: the percentage of people agreeing that foot patrols had a high visibility decreased from 39% in 2009/10 to 27% in 2015/16.
…while the number of police officers on long-term sick leave increased substantially.
There are signs of stress among the workforce. The number of officers on long-term sick leave grew by 35% from 1,928 in 2013 to 2,613 in 2016. As a proportion of the workforce, this represents an increase from 1.5% to 2.1%.
In each of the past three years, over half of police officers who responded to the Police Federation of England and Wales annual survey said their own morale was low. This peaked in 2015 at 70% but returned to 56% in 2016 – a level comparable to 2014. Reasons for low morale included pay and benefits, work-life balance, workload and responsibilities, and health and wellbeing. In 2016, the Police Remuneration Review Body echoed concerns about morale and observed that police officers felt that they were ‘not being valued by government and wider society, particularly through changes to pay and conditions and continuing pay restraint’.
Despite obvious issues around wellbeing and morale, the review body found that the supply of police officers has held up, with applicants outstripping the number of available places. Officer attrition rates are also holding steady, at 5.8%.
However, public confidence in the police has grown, against the backdrop of less recorded crime…
Compared with other services (for example, operations in hospitals or exam results in schools) there is a lack of an objective measure of ‘output’ for the police. In the absence of such a measure, crime levels (which have been declining since 1995, according to recorded crime rates in the Crime Survey for England and Wales) are often mistakenly viewed as a proxy for police performance. However, crime rates are not actually a reliable indicator of police performance. For example, a decline in vehicle theft could be attributed to enhanced security features developed by car manufacturers, as much as to police behaviour. Furthermore, changes to the way crime is recorded make comparisons between years difficult and can lead to sudden spikes in volume that do not reflect an actual increase in offences.
Difficulties in measuring police output mean that the most reliable indicators of police performance are public perceptions. A high and sustained level of public support for the police is necessary for the British model of policing by consent, where legitimacy derives ‘not from fear but almost exclusively from public co-operation’. The job of the police would be significantly harder without broad public support.
The data suggests a positive trend in this respect. The percentage of people who think the police are doing a good or excellent job rose by six percentage points from 56% in 2009/10 to 63% in 2015/16, rising sharply up to 2012 and holding steady through to 2016 as spending fell.
This is reinforced by an increase of nine percentage points over the past six years, from 59% to 68%, in confidence in the effectiveness and fairness of the criminal justice system (of which admittedly the police are but one element).
However, most people do not have regular interaction with the police. Recent polling (separate from the Crime Survey for England and Wales) commissioned by HMIC found that 27% of the general public were unable even to express a view on whether they were either satisfied or dissatisfied with their local police. As a result, it is arguably more important to assess perceptions of the police among victims – those who have the most interaction.
…and victims’ satisfaction with the police has remained stable since 2009.
Despite reductions in spending and staff numbers, the percentage of incidents where victims reported a crime to the police, and were satisfied with how the matter was handled, remained steady during the past six years. The total percentage of incidents in which victims said they were fairly or very satisfied with the police increased slightly, from 69% to 71% over the six years, while the number of incidents where victims were not satisfied decreased slightly, from 31% to 29%. Victims’ perceptions are a strong indication of how effectively the police are managing to respond to the demands they face across different types of crime.
Police performance has held up, with most forces judged by the inspectorate as good or outstanding.
Victim and public perceptions of police performance are reinforced by the inspectorate’s assessment. Last year (2015/16) saw the first complete cycle of HMIC’s new PEEL inspections, which consider the effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy of police forces.* The majority of police forces were rated outstanding or good in each of the three pillars: 88% on legitimacy, 79% on efficiency and 58% on effectiveness.
In order for the police to improve their effectiveness (18 forces were rated as ‘requires improvement’ in this area), HMIC wants forces to reallocate resources and adapt their skill set to meet the changing nature of the demand they face. Since 2009/10, recorded crime for ‘traditional’ offences, such as robbery and drugs, has decreased by 32% and 39% respectively, while sexual offences (and more recently high levels of historical allegations) have increased by 105% over the same period. These crimes are seen as more complex and resource intensive to investigate, and require new thinking about what the appropriate skill set for the workforce should be.
At the same time, the volume of incidents in which the police operate almost as the ‘service of last resort’ – including responding to calls about individuals’ welfare – has been widely commented on by HMIC, the NAO and the Home Affairs Select Committee. The College of Policing’s work on the totality of police demand has indicated that around 83% of command and control calls are non-crime-related incidents.
* A force’s effectiveness is assessed in relation to how it carries out its responsibilities, including cutting crime, protecting the vulnerable, tackling antisocial behaviour, and dealing with emergencies and other calls for service. A force’s efficiency is assessed in relation to how it provides value for money. A force’s legitimacy is assessed in relation to whether the force operates fairly, ethically and within the law. See HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, State of Policing: The annual assessment of policing in England and Wales 2015, February 2016.