The case of the 14-year-old boy criminalised for sending a naked selfie to a girl in his class is symptomatic of much that is wrong with policing in the UK. Many have remarked on the stupidity of treating an immature, impulsive act as a criminal matter; in reality this was at most a child protection issue. The police, not unreasonably, say they were merely following guidelines on the distribution of indecent images. Far fewer have asked why there was a police officer based at the school, in a position to record the act as a crime.
In little over a decade, police presence in schools has gone from occasional to routine. It is just one example of a police mission creep that now touches virtually every area of public service. In hospitals and schools; social work and probation work; event stewarding and incident management – you will likely come across a man or women with the power of arrest, doing a job that should be done by someone else, if it should be done at all.
Police mission creep helps explain why so many officers say they have never worked so hard. The police do not only deal with crime, the chair of the Police Federation for England and Wales, Steve White, argues. Indeed, they appear to spend precious little time dealing with crime. As he points out, 84% of calls to the police relate to “non-crime incidents”. Put differently, only 16% of calls are apparently about crime.
If the police are overworked, it is in good part because they are doing a slew of jobs that should be done by other services. This mission creep was made possible by generous spending settlements under the last Labour government. In the decade leading up to the 2010 general election, police spending grew in real terms by 50%. Police officer numbers went up from around 122,000 in 2004 to nearly 160,000 (including police community support officers) by 2010.
Yet, as the Labour government showered the police with cash, the role that most people associate with them – dealing with crime – was hollowing out. The number of crimes recorded by the police fell by more than a third in the decade leading up to March 2014. In 2004, over 40 crimes were recorded per officer; by 2014 it was less than 30.
The steps taken since 2010 to rein in police budgets have been a necessary reaction to unsustainable budget growth, against the background of falling crime and austerity economics. The stark choice put forward by White – of further cuts leaving the public unprotected – is in good part a false one.
Far from being a threat, cuts to police budgets and further reductions in police numbers are an opportunity to rebalance public policy. Youth and social workers, professionals in health and education, local authorities and civil society organisations should be providing the default response to a range of social issues that are frequently treated as criminal problems. The police can then be left to focus on a narrower range of core functions.
Police officers are understandably concerned that the many things they currently do will not be picked up by other services. But they cannot be expected to lead on solving a problem created by politicians who are happy to impose cuts without thinking seriously about the necessary breadth and depth of public services – the hallmark of a fair and decent society – and what it takes to fund them.
This article was first published on The Guardian Public Leaders Network pages on 7 September, 2015.