The policing context

A stretched service

Chapter summary

The police are grappling with a spread of demand in every direction. As public and police attitudes have changed, the police have shifted from dealing with crimes in the public sphere to tackling private sphere crimes, seeking out and prosecuting domestic violence and sexual offences that were too often ignored previously.

As crime has shifted online, the police have – somewhat reluctantly – followed. From dealing almost exclusively with the crimes of today, policing now deals much more regularly with historic crime. And the police increasingly feel that they must take responsibility not just for crime but for protecting the vulnerable, including those suffering mental ill health, missing children, and those affected by accidents. They must also monitor a greater number of individuals who pose risk to the public, with the number of people registered as sex offenders living in the community having risen by 82% from 2006/7 to 2016/17 and terrorism watch lists constantly expanding.

Increased complexity

The spread of policing’s responsibility, partially off-set by a long-term and possibly now faltering decline in some ‘traditional’ crimes, is exacerbated by dramatically increased complexity. Some crimes (for example, car theft) are arguably easier to investigate or prevent today due to improved surveillance, forensics and security tools. However, crimes in the private sphere are taking the police into unsurveilled spaces and deeply complex relational issues and very largescale investigations.

Cyber‑dependent and cyber‑enabled crimes do not respect traditional geographic boundaries and require new technical skills. Our digital footprints are now vast, which provides greater opportunities to solve crime – but imposes a huge investigative burden and challenges for current legal processes. Criminal techniques also continue to evolve, in particular through the use of new digital tools. Business and social innovation without considering the crime consequences creates new opportunities for crime and allows the development of new methods for perpetrating crime.

Complexity is also the price of progress in policing practice. The rapid development of knowledge bases, equipment, technology and managerial tools continue mean that no individual today could claim to perform all policing tasks to adequate standards. And the job of police mangers at all levels who must corral increasingly specialist skills is growing more complicated – requiring the bringing together of skills ranging from operating specialist equipment (flying helicopters or drones), to dealing with child victims, investigating complex financial fraud, and using data analytic tools and randomised control trials to test new crime prevention methods.

A new level of speed

We now live in a world where a well-produced video calling for retaliation after a stabbing can be put online within two hours of an incident. The 2011 riots originated in Tottenham, but spread rapidly partly aided by use of Blackberry messaging functions by rioters. Social media, however, also helped a faster mobilisation of community support in clean-up efforts and was dominated by anti-riot messaging, with the most retweeted message during the riots being from comedian Simon Pegg: “Visit for info on how and where to help if you can #riotcleanup”.

Increased scrutiny

Society rightly expects growing levels of accessibility, transparency and accountability from the police, partly due to historic scandals and awareness of the ever-present potential for corruption. But attempts to meet these expectations have also created new pressures, adding both procedural burdens and psychological strain and too often lead to blame and risk-aversion, rather than deep organisational learning. Technology, used by the police and the public, has provided tools for radical transparency but these have created challenges around privacy, policy and procedure.

The impact of austerity

After steady increases in investment in the 2000s, police budgets have fallen around twenty per cent in real terms since 2010 in England and Wales, with somewhat similar falls in Northern Ireland and smaller but significant real term reductions in Scotland. Police workforce numbers are now back at the levels seen at the turn of the century when the country had ten per cent fewer people and it is hard to disagree with our survey respondents, who on average thought police funding would probably not improve significantly over next five to ten years. Other organisations supporting the police mission are similarly affected by spending reductions, with chief constables interviewed for our research mentioning reduced capacity in probation services in particular.

The arrival of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs)

Recent policy changes are also still playing out, most notably the arrival of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in 2011, elected representatives whose main jobs are to set policing budgets and strategy at force level, hire and fire chief constables and account to the public for police performance. The power of PCCs was, in effect, recently increased through temporarily increased tax-raising powers. In 2017, PCCs were permitted to raise the ‘police precept’ element of local taxation by up to £1 per household per month in 2018 and thereafter, a shift that has seen lively local debates.

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The policing context

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