Rupert Matthews is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.
That might seem a fairly silly question. We all know what the police are for, right?
The problem is that there are almost as many answers as there are people to answer the question. The end result is that the police end up being expected to do just about anything. If the police had limitless resources, vast numbers of officers, and endless time, that would be fair enough. But they don’t – so it is time to start making some tough choices.
Thanks to the Conservative government’s uplift of 20,000 additional police officers, Leicestershire Police now has more police officers than it did under a Labour PCC. Unfortunately, demand has gone up as well. Reducing that demand is a tricky conundrum but one that we must solve – the police can’t do everything.
One senior police officer told me that the police are an “emergency, blue-light service” which should get involved only in emergency situations. That’s not a view that I expect would find favour with the public concerned about vandalism and the low-level crime that blights too many of our communities.
At the other extreme, one local councillor asked me why the police never did anything about cars parked on yellow lines. Because that is the task of his council, was the answer.
In fact, good cooperation between the police, councils, and other partners, can have dramatic impacts on anti-social behaviour and other issues. It is better to stop crimes and anti-social behaviour before it happens in the first place. Preventing crime will reduce demand on the police – a worthwhile investment.
And when a crime is committed, the police should investigate and gather evidence for prosecution. Over the past year, the Conservative government has introduced two key new policies. First, that the police would attend all domestic burglaries. Second, that police forces should follow all ‘reasonable lines of enquiry’ to improve the outcome of investigations and drive down crime rates.
Good for the Conservative government, but here the Leicestershire Police were already following these policies.
But what about the hidden demands our officers face? The ongoing pressures putting a strain on resources that have nothing to do with preventing or responding to crime at all?
Let’s start with big events. Here in Leicestershire, we are host to Leicester City Football Club. That’s a great team and a real asset to our city, but their home matches require a lot of policing. Recently, Leicester also played host to Radio 2 in the Park, which saw around 70,000 people pour into the city. And a few weeks ago there was the Download Festival at Donington Park with 120,000 attendees.
Such events often generate huge profits for the organisers. But if the police are reimbursed at all it is only for policing within the event’s grounds itself – not for the issues that often precede or follow such gatherings such as pre-event drinking and post-event crowds trying to get home at the same time.
Organisers should be expected to provide their own security, traffic management schemes and such like. I will be lobbying government to allow the police to recoup more of their costs from event organisers when the police are involved.
Then there are mental health episodes. While some mental health incidents do require police attendance, there are a significant number which involve no safety risk or crime – and yet the police get called anyway. The police are not medical professionals, and we should not expect them to be.
Fortunately, in July this year, a new “Right Person, Right Care” partnership agreement was signed. If a call is made to the police, they will not automatically attend but instead will assess if a police officer is required or if somebody from a partner agency would be a better fit. It is estimated that over a million police officer hours will be saved nationally.
Then there are neighbour disputes which soak up a large amount of police officer time – even though crimes are rarely involved. And all too often other arms of the state call the police when they can’t manage things themselves. That should stop.
We have found a way to reduce the demand on police time from mental health episodes. It is now time to look at other demands on police time and see how they can be reduced or how the costs can be recouped in full.
That will free the police to do their core jobs of preventing crime, and catching criminals when it does happen.