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Do more police mean less crime?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are both pledging an increase in police officer numbers. Are these plans a welcome investment or a symbolic bit of electioneering?

A key policy challenge is not recruiting more police officers, but using the time of existing officers more effectively. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/West Midlands Police. Some rights reserved.

There are around 20,000 fewer police officers across England and Wales than there were in 2010. Does that make us less safe? Are our homes more likely to be burgled? Are we more at risk of assault, or worse?

Awful recent events in Manchester and South London have sharpened the debate about police officer numbers in relation to terrorism. But what about the more conventional and common victimisations that it is supposedly the job of the police to tackle?

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have gone into the General Election promising more police officers. Labour claims that cuts in officer numbers “endanger communities and endanger police officers”. The Liberal Democrats pledge to “increase community policing... to reverse the increase in violent crime”.

Labour proposes to recruit “10,000 more police officers to work on community beats, equivalent to at least one more for every neighbourhood in the country”. The Liberal Democrats are pledging “an additional £300 million a year to local police forces to reverse the increase in violent crime, boost community confidence and increase the flow of community intelligence”. Are these plans a welcome investment in public safety, or a largely symbolic bit of electioneering?

Back in 1984, two Home Office researchers – Ron Clarke and Mike Hough – wrote a paragraph that has gone down in policing studies folklore:

“given present burglary rates and evenly distributed patrol coverage, a patrolling policeman (sic) in London could expect to pass within 100 yards of a burglary in progress roughly once every eight years – but not necessarily catch the burglar or even realise that the crime was taking place."

Various echoes of this striking formulation have been heard down the years. In The Times in November 2009, for instance, the then President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, wrote that it was “quite scary if people who are claiming to represent communities see the solution simply as more cops on the street while all the evidence shows that if you’re a patrolling officer the chance of coming within half a mile of a burglary is about once every 150 years”.

An additional 10,000 police, costing £300 million a year, would equate to 20,000 fewer burglaries annually, or £15,000 for each burglary prevented.

A review for the Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2011 found some evidence of an association between police officer numbers and property offences. It estimated that “a 10 per cent increase in officers will lead to a reduction in crime of around 3 per cent”. Labour estimates that the annual cost of its additional 10,000 police officers will be £300 million, equal to the Liberal Democrat proposal. The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that there were 664,000 domestic burglaries in the 12 months to December 2016. Putting these figures together, we might say that an additional 10,000 police, costing £300 million a year, would equate to 20,000 fewer burglaries annually, or £15,000 for each burglary prevented. That’s an expensive way of making a few houses across the country more secure.

So what is to be done? A study by the College of Policing in 2015 found that 84% of calls to the police were related to non-crime incidents: notably concerns over an individual’s welfare. This suggests that a key policy challenge is not recruiting more police officers, but using the time of existing officers more effectively. As Theresa May told the Police Federation conference in May 2015, when she was still Home Secretary, police officers are "not social workers... mental health nurses, or paramedics".

Rather than recruiting more police officers, whichever party or parties form the next government would be better advised to rebuild those social services – such as mental health, housing support, social work, youth work – that have been decimated by years of austerity. That way, a smaller police force could be left to concentrate on the 16% of calls they receive that are actually about law-breaking.

Richard Garside’s assessment of the main crime and justice manifesto commitments can be read here: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/assessing-general-election-manifestos

About the author

Richard Garside is the director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and senior visiting research fellow at The Open University.

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