Roger Hirst is Police, Fire & Crime Commissioner for Essex and the Association of Police & Crime Commissioner’s national lead for finance
The last seven years have seen a hefty increase in overall funding for policing in England and Wales. Total expenditure has risen by £4.9 billion to £17 billion, a real-terms increase of 18 per cent, as the Conservative government has funded a 20,000 increase in police officers – and the staff and equipment to support them. PCCs have increased their funding for Police by 33 per cent in real terms over the same period, to bolster the increase in numbers and fund local modernisation. There is no doubt that the increases were necessary: crime was rising, but also becoming more complex as the internet and smartphones gave criminals new ways of running drugs gangs, and defrauding and abusing people in their own homes, even in their bedrooms. The Government brought in strong new laws to safeguard and protect vulnerable people, legislating against stalking and harassment and coercive control, and making previously legal highs criminal. The rise in demand on police time and resources is clear. We need to make sure that the additional spending is making a difference and getting crime down.
More than anything, police effectiveness must be boosted by a strategic shift to prevention. 20,000 extra cops has to mean one million fewer crimes, not 200,000 more people in front of the courts. The policing model which pertained seven years ago was horribly resource-hungry: force control rooms calling out officers who were on random patrol to respond to the nearest incident, almost impossible to assess on the basis of harm or vulnerability from the scant details given over the 999 call. I have myself witnessed a call which seemed to be a violent assault and vehicle theft, but turned out to be two mates falling out over a sports bag. By the time the expert call handler had teased out the additional details and de-escalated the call, the squad car was there. There is plenty of evidence to show that random patrol, rapid response and reactive investigation do little to reduce crime. Instead we need targeted policing, using modern data science to pinpoint hotpots, manage known offenders, and protect vulnerable people from becoming victims.
We know pro-active policing of crime hotspots works. Where we have tested it, we have seen reductions in the level of crime of over 75 per cent. And with the investments we have been making in modern data-mapping, we can pin down those hotpots to a street corner, a transport hub, an underpass, and have our police in the right place at the right time in the right numbers to keep people safe. The government’s Safer Streets Fund has also allowed us to harden a number of target areas for high crime. Similarly, new technology can help us manage known offenders better: GPS- and Sobriety-Tags are very effective at keeping offenders out of repeated trouble. And the step-change we experienced in data-sharing between agencies through the Covid pandemic undoubtedly helped safeguard many more vulnerable people. Planned interventions around victims of domestic abuse or those being preyed on by drugs gangs have proven very effective. Pulling all that together, the real boost to police efficiency comes from the effectiveness of prevention work in reducing demand on the more expensive and intensive areas of policing, in investigation, supporting victims, and taking offenders through the justice system.
Bringing people to justice however is also an area where police productivity is improving substantially. Scientific advances in biometrics and forensics mean stronger case files. Video evidence often leads to an early guilty plea. And using video better to allow victims and witnesses to provide the best evidence while being supported through what can often be a traumatic time offers them a better experience of the court process as well as improvements in its efficiency.
Cost-effectiveness can also be boosted by improving back-office functions. Collaboration between forces, and with other agencies, has already saved hundreds of millions of pounds which have been reinvested in the front line. Agile working is meaning we can make better use of the estate, and disposal of redundant properties has funded much of the investment in new technology locally. New collaborative ventures such as Blue Light Commercial and the Police Digital Service, where the Home Office, Chief Constables, and PCCs are working together to improve procurement, share services, and promote good practice, are well set to deliver further benefits over the next few years.
There are of course plenty of barriers to progress. Data-sharing around vulnerable people has been notoriously difficult to sustain. Modern technology demands new ways of working, changes of habit as well as changes of long tradition. And areas like biometrics and facial matching must take account of legitimate issues around human rights. However, we have an opportunity on the back of the recent massive investment to change policing, and to change it for the better.