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We don't need more police, we need a shift of responsibilities

As services were withdrawn from vulnerable people, the police occupied the gap. Election campaigns should concentrate not on the police budget, but on rebalancing responsibilities.

Non-crime incidents account for 84% of all incoming calls to command and control centres. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/West Midlands Police from West Midlands. Some rights reserved.

Police numbers and funding have emerged as a general election issue this week thanks largely to a clumsy and muddled radio interview from shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott. Last week, Labour pledged to put 10,000 more "police on the streets" with Jeremy Corbyn emphasising the need for "uniformed officers being visible, local and accessible". In media interviews, Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, defended cuts to police numbers and insisted "a Conservative budget will put security first and what we’ve seen in recent years is a protected police budget".

After a period of unprecedented growth, the recent fall in police numbers since 2010 still leaves workforce numbers at historically high levels. Yet, police forces across the country report they are stretched to the limit by public demand. In 2015 the Police Federation launched the #CutsHaveConsequences campaign, highlighting what they called "extreme cuts" to police numbers. Speaking to the Police Federation annual conference in 2015, and defending police budget cuts, Theresa May said:

"Police officers are not social workers, they are not mental health nurses, or paramedics. And I stand by the sentiment. It is not good enough for police custody to be used as an overspill facility for A&E - or for secure children’s homes to use the police to control the children in their care…the right place for a person suffering a mental health crisis is a bed, not a police cell. And the right people to look after them are medically trained professionals, not police officers"

The police are too often called into situations that could better be dealt with by other professions. The College of Policing report, Estimating demand on the police service states that ‘non-crime’ incidents account for 84% of all incoming calls to command and control centres. This is a staggering figure - more than eight out of ten calls are for matters that should not be core business for the police.

In 2012/2013, there were 19.6 million non-crime incidents recorded by the police. About 60% required action by officers, beyond resolving the issue during the phone call, either by way of an emergency or priority response (40%) or a scheduled visit (20%).

Many of those who once would have been placed in psychiatric institutions are now to be found in prison.

Much of this demand is related to issues of Public Safety and Welfare (PSW), with a significant proportion, up to a third, relating to mental health issues. Many of these PSW issues can be complex and resource intensive to resolve. They are likely to relate to vulnerable populations, missing persons, suicides and child protection. In other words, the police are focused on what is really the core business of social work and mental health professionals, with a reported growing emphasis on mental health in the last few years. Indeed, just last month, Sir Thomas Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary said

“The police are considered to be the service of last resort. In some areas, particularly where people with mental health problems need urgent help, the police are increasingly being used as the service of first resort. This is wrong.”

This generational evolution of policing activity to overwhelmingly non-crime-related business can be attributed to a number of factors.

First, the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 led to the de-institutionalisation of people with long-term mental health problems and a shift to care in the community. Without adequate community support and funding, this has led to the police becoming increasingly called upon to deal with people in mental health crisis. One outcome has been that many of those who once would have been placed in psychiatric institutions are now to be found in prison.

As services were withdrawn from vulnerable people, the police occupied the gap.

Second, there was the introduction of neighbourhood policing teams and Police Community Support Officers. This soft-edged policing embedded the police in the terrain of informal local state responses to anti-social behaviour and low level social problems. Ward policing has, in effect, made officers easier to access for the resolution of low level problems than any other arm of national or local government. This has been reinforced by the presence of police in schools.

Third, the promise of localism was undermined by cuts to local authority budgets of 35 per cent since 2010. The result was the withdrawal of the local state from social and welfare provision of various sorts – meals on wheels, youth service provision, social care, to the management of housing. As services were withdrawn from vulnerable people, the police occupied the gap, buoyed by historically high workforce numbers, drawing them further into the areas of social work.

Each of these factors have contributed to the police being considered by the public as the first port of call to respond to a wide range of problems not related to law-breaking at all. 

An overall shift in government budgets away from policing and towards the training and employment of social work and mental health professionals.

Over the past generation the public have been educated to call the police to address a wide range of social problems. The retraction of local state services has led to an increasing reliance on the police. For a shift in resources from front line police staff to front line social work and mental health staff to be a success, a change in public culture from ringing 999 for a first response, to contacting other more appropriate services, will be necessary.

The resourcing of mental health workers and social workers to manage demand presently met by police officers should be a high priority. This would necessarily mean an overall shift in government budgets away from policing and towards the training and employment of social work and mental health professionals. This approach could lead to a radically downsized and less publicly visible police force, shorn of its social work responsibilities and instead, focusing on the estimated 16% of incoming calls to command and control centres that are actually about law-breaking.

It may well be the case that communities need visible, local and accessible services and support workers. It is unlikely that in most cases these workers need to be uniformed police officers. 

About the author

Will McMahon is Deputy Director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, a UK based charity working to advance public understanding of crime, criminal justice and social harm. 

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