Friday, August 12, 2011

Only 12% of police are on the beat – true or false?

Inevitably police cuts have become a political football after a week that looked like an apocalyptic version of Supermarket Sweep - what the French newspapers have called "the shopping riots".

Yesterday David Cameron told the House of Commons that 20% police budget cuts would not necessarily lead to reductions in police on the beat. This claim was scrutinised by Cathy Newman on the Channel Four Factcheck, who concluded it involved a “rhetorical sleight of hand".

David Cameron also noted:

Today, as we speak, only 12% of police officers are on the beat at any one time.

It’s a shocking statistic. I verified this figure in a report, Demanding Times (pdf available), by HM Inspector of Constabulary. However, it’s a little misleading and maybe a tad mischievous.

Demanding Times explains exactly what is involved in the 12% figure for police “available” and “visible”:

The majority of officers and PCSOs in visible roles who are not available will be off shift. Some will be appearing in court (to give evidence or act as court liaison officers), others will be on holiday and a few will be off sick.

… 19% of police officers and PCSOs are in the middle and back offices combined. It is to be expected that there will be some police officers in these categories, as they include roles such as managing and processing intelligence, criminal justice, specialist investigative support functions and crime management. They will also be working in roles that benefit from operational insight, such as business transformation projects. Equally, the back office category includes training roles: and forces rely on the brightest and the best from the front line being able to pass on their skills and knowledge. Nevertheless, authorities and forces, taking account of their local circumstances, would benefit from assuring themselves of the need for police officer skills in these two categories.

No one would deprive police of their annual leave, sick leave or being off-shift – particularly after the last few days. Likewise intelligence, investigation, etc are valuable. Of course, there is no doubt scope for reducing red tape – just as there is in most public services. The fact that there is variation in rates of “available and visible” across the country points to scope to spread best practice e.g. in shift management.

There is a strong case for police reform and an urgent need for greater efficiency – the police force is arguably the least modernised territory of the public sector. However, misleading and mischievous use of eye-catching statistics is unhelpful.

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