The non-crisis of policing in England and Wales

Richard Garside
Monday, 18 May 2015

Last year the Home Secretary Theresa May went to the Police Federation annual conference and gave it a good kicking.

The Police Federation, she told the assembled rank and file, had a choice between 'irrelevance and reform... The Federation was created by an Act of Parliament and it can be reformed by an Act of Parliament. If you do not change of your own accord, we will impose change on you'.

For good measure, she also announced that Home Office funding to pay for the Federation's top brass - worth nearly £200,000 per year - would come to an end.

The silence and hostility that greeted the speech, and her earlier speeches it should be said, spoke volumes about the changed relationship between the Home Secretary and the Federation. It also pointed to the diminished reputation and political influence of the Federation, and of the police more generally.

With the Home Secretary due to make a return visit to the Federation's annual conference this coming Wednesday, it has been getting in its retaliation early.

Speaking to The Guardian yesterday, the Federation's chair, Steve White, warned that the police service was 'on its knees', with increased mental health problems, increased sick leave and plunging morale. I am sure this is true. Healthcare professionals, teachers, social workers and many other public service employees have faced similar pressures.

It was Mr White's other remarks that turned an otherwise routine plea on behalf of his members into something approaching a threat. 'The concept of the British bobby at the heart of policing will be coming to an end', he told The Guardian.

And then there was this:

'You are left with a police service who you only speak to in the direst of circumstances, a police service almost paramilitary in style.

'You get a style of policing where the first options are teargas, rubber bullets and water cannon.'

So there we have it. Public safety is at risk if police budgets are cut any further. In a unusual twist, the threat comes from the police themselves.

This is the logic of the gangster, not the utterances of a public servant. Mr White has unwittingly made the case for fewer, rather than more, police.

The Guardian goes on to state that the police may face further cuts of 20 to 25 percent to their budgets by 2020, leading to '15,000 officers disappearing off the streets, only being seen when responding to crime or serious events such as disorder'.

I hope these projections are correct. Far from having too few police officers, we currently have far too many.

A further reduction of 15,000 police officers by 2020 would not deliver us into a dystopian, lawless land. Reducing it by half that amount would take us back to the numbers of police we had in 2001. A reduction by the full 15,000 would return us to levels of policing in the early 1980s. So we would hardly be entering uncharted territory.

The year 2001 was a turning point in recent policing history. It inaugurated a decade during which the Labour government threw money at the police in order to boost police numbers. As the figure below shows, the policy was highly successful. Between 2000 and 2010, police officer numbers grew from some 120,000 to over 140,000.

The result of this growth in policing was disastrous for a balanced approach to public policy. In place of well-funded youth work, social work and housing teams, we got teams of men and women in uniforms, with the power of arrest.

As Andrew Millie points out in this article (£££), mission creep became the order of the day for the generously funded police. The result was police officers acting as probation officers and social workers; as school workers; as disaster managers; as event stewards.

Further cuts to police budgets, and a reduction in police numbers, is a threat to the Police Federation and its members. For everyone else it is an opportunity to rebalance public policy and rebuild needed social institutions.

As for paramilitary policing, that is a choice Chief Constables and police officers can make. But it is not the only one.

If elements in the police are minded to use budget cuts as a pretext for violence and confrontation, they should be held accountable for their actions.

I have corrected the original article. I originally wrote that a drop of 15,000 police officers from the current levels would take us back to the position current in 2001. As Jon Collins pointed out, we have to go back to the early 1980s to reach that level. Thanks Jon.

See also Falling police officers: A longer view, where I explore further the different scenarios around the likely decline in police numbers.