Falling police numbers: The longer view

The Centre's director, Richard Garside, explores how police numbers might fall in the future, and what it will mean.

By: 
Richard Garside
Date: 
Tuesday, 19 May, 2015

The claim by the Chair of the Police Federation, Steve White, that policing in England and Wales was 'on its knees' and could not face further cuts are overstated, I argued in a piece I wrote yesterday.

I also took Mr White to task for his threat that cuts would force the police to adopt more violent tactics: 'a police service almost paramilitary in style', to use his words.

The dramatic growth in police numbers between 2000 and 2010 had been a disaster for public policy, I argued, crowding out more holistic and inclusive approaches to the problems society faced.

Further cuts to police numbers might pose a threat to the Police Federation and its members. It also presented an opportunity to rebalance public policy and rebuild much needed social institutions.

A reduction of 15,000 officers by 2020 - the figure mooted by some police forces - would take us back to the numbers of police in the early 1980s. A reduction of half that amount - some 7,500 officers - would take us back to the position in 2000, before the Labour government increased the police budget to boost numbers.

This is illustrated by the blue line in the figure below. The dashed blue line shows what would happen if we had 7,500 fewer police officers by 2020. The dotted blue line shows what would happen if 15,000 officers went by 2020.

Since 2003 we have also had Police Community Support Officers (PCSO). While they are civilian staff, they wear a police-style uniform. They have also been a key part of the neighbourhood policing model that Steve White claims is now under threat.

The number of PCSOs grew from around 1,000 in 2003 to over 16,000 by 2010. Since then their numbers have fallen, to just under 13,000 by September 2014.

The orange line below illustrates the combined police officer and PCSO numbers between 2003 and 2014. They grew to nearly 160,000 by 2010, falling back to around 142,000 by 2010. 

Looking ahead we see two further scenarios for combined police officer and PCSO numbers.

The dashed orange line shows what will happen if police officer numbers decline by 7,500 and PCSO numbers decline at their current rate. This would result in combined police officer and PCSO numbers equivalent to the number of police officers in late 2002.

The dotted orange line shows what will happen if police officer numbers fall by 15,000 and PCSO numbers decline at their current rate. Under this scenario, combined police officer and PCSO numbers would be equivalent to the number of police officers in the year 2000.

The Police Federation will argue that such comparisons are bogus. Police officers and PCSOs are not the same thing. While this is true, PCSOs have become a key part of the neighbourhood policing approach the Federation claims is now under threat. They are, in other words, part of the visible policing presence and should be counted as such.

Even with further cuts, the visible police presence will remain at a historically high level. The police will remain a very well-funded public service. Talk of crisis is misplaced.