Featured blog: What do we want the police to do? It’s time for an honest debate

The police might be forgiven for thinking that parts of the press have it in for them. First The Sun launched an all out assault on Humberside Police for officers being photographed playing on dodgems at a fun fair. Then the same paper criticised Avon and Somerset Constabulary for an awareness raising campaign around modern slavery that involved officers painting their nails (highlighting the problem of forced labour in nail bars). On Sunday the commentator Peter Hitchens wrote a curious piece complaining, without evidence, that the police were more effective in the past when they had fewer resources but were focused on the sort of things Mr Hitchens believes they ought to be doing.

So we have what feels like a concerted campaign against the police, accused of losing focus, of engaging in ‘PR campaigns’, while, as one man told The Sun, ‘They should be out catching crooks. That’s what they’re paid for.’

But is that what they’re paid for?  The truth is that, contrary to the view that the police are exclusively law enforcers or thief takers, the police have always had a very broad public service remit in this country. The Peelian principles talk about preventing crime and disorder, not just ‘catching crooks’. They speak of the police securing the cooperation of the public in observing the law, so that there is less of an emphasis on having to enforce it. They talk about ‘offering individual service and friendship’. Policing is about enforcing the law and investigating crime, but it is also surely about preventing crime, keeping the peace, responding to emergencies of many kinds and protecting the most vulnerable from harm.

If one looks at demand on the police, we can see that only 17 per cent of Command and Control calls result in a crime being recorded. Now, of the other calls there are a large number that are closely connected to crime. For example, I was recently shown demand data for a large force where the single biggest category of demand was that labelled ‘suspicious circumstances’. This category would include cases where a member of the public calls the non emergency number because they suspect ‘something dodgy is going on’ but no crime is ultimately detected. Nonetheless the College of Policing has found that in four of the five forces they looked at, ‘Public Safety and Welfare’ demand was the single largest category and the number of such incidents has increased significantly in recent years.

I recently went out with response and neighbourhood teams in one city in the South East to learn about what this is like on the frontline. Over the course of two shifts most of the incidents we attended were non crime related. We were called to a number of mental health related incidents, such as a young man in distress going missing from hospital and an elderly lady who seemed to have Alzheimer’s walking around the street waving a pair of scissors. In the latter case the officers had to spend a considerable amount of time working out where the lady lived and trying to persuade her to return there. In another incident, two to three hours were taken up trying to find a 17 year old girl who had gone missing.

What would the critics like to happen in these cases?  Presumably that the police should refuse to attend them because they are not crime related. But in each of these cases there was a genuine concern for public safety. It is easy to make fun of the police playing on dodgems at a fun fair or painting their nails, but what was the objective in these cases?  In one case it was visible policing at a community event, with the police being on hand to help. They decided to have a bit of fun in the process and I do not begrudge them for it. In the other case one of the big issues with modern slavery is very low levels of reporting. A crucial way to tackle this crime is to raise the public’s awareness that many people employed in nail bars and car washes are being coerced to work by organised criminal gangs. The aim is to encourage people to look out for this and call the police if they suspect exploitation.

Do we really want a police service that is almost exclusively about ‘catching crooks’? All our experience from England’s big cities in the 1980s, from Northern Ireland, from modern day France, from countless cities in the US, shows that militarised heavy mob policing leads to community alienation and undermines public confidence. Moreover, and this should concern Mr Hitchens, it goes against our long standing tradition of policing by consent.

When austerity kicked in there were plenty of people calling for the police to set out ‘what they would no longer do’. My view is that the public would not accept refusal to attend the kinds of incidents I have described above. The way through this is to ensure that there is much more effective collaboration between the police and the other services. Most non crime demand has its causes in failures elsewhere. Why do so many children go missing from local authority care? Why are psychiatric services and floating support failing to provide the help people need?

Here comes the shameless plug. The Police Foundation’s Annual Conference on 29th November is looking at precisely these questions: what is the police role in early intervention?  How do we develop genuinely integrated responses to the kind of complex problems I have described (mental illness, modern slavery, missing children)?  If you are interested you can book your place here.

In addition to improved collaboration we need an informed public debate about the role of the police. Thankfully most people have very little contact with the police and probably not much of an idea of the kind of incidents they have to deal with.  Most of us get our information about police work from television and film where the emphasis tends to be on sleuths investigating serious crimes committed by bad people. I think people would be surprised by the fact that most policing is not like that.

Interestingly when the Reform think tank asked people in a survey what the police should prioritise, respondents came back with the traditional answers. But when people were provided with a list of individual incidents, they prioritised the vulnerability of the victim and the risk of harm, which is exactly what the police do. This indicates that if most of us were more aware of the nature of demand on the police, there would be less of a gap between public expectations and police priorities.  If we want to get beyond confected controversies about fun fairs and nail painting the police need to engage the public, and the press, in an honest conversation about what we want them to do.

By Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation, the country’s leading independent think tank focusing on policing and crime.

Security level: Public

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