Former police officer Milad Amini gives his take on the future of policing in the UK with a Conservative majority.
Like many other important public services, policing dominates political campaigns during general elections. But the 2019 election was focused principally on Brexit, dominated by political rhetoric rather than substance. You may have heard Ministers nebulously pledging 20,000 extra Police Officers at least 21,000 times, but the real detail was missing. Perhaps deliberately.
The promised figure of 20,000 police officers during this election may have sounded popular, but it certainly is not an extra boost of officers in real terms. It simply restores police numbers to just under what they actually were before Government cuts since 2010. A rather crafty attempt to correct the wrong of austerity through figures rather than substance. The real challenges are yet to be addressed.
The police are constantly adapting to the changing needs of the communities they serve and of course there is always room to make calculated and prudent organisational efficiency. However, to ensure policing is carried out effectively, their presence in the community and resources to do their job must be protected by any Government. The austerity imposed on the police since 2010 has been incredibly damaging and highly irresponsible.
One of the first victims of austerity was asset reduction across the police estate. Local Police Stations were stripped from communities and sold off, often in a hurry to raise quick funds and satisfy saving targets set by the Government. Although this may have satisfied Home Office Ministers, neighbourhoods across England & Wales were permanently deprived of their Police Stations; which had until recently provided a continuous police presence in their locality. Many neighbourhood officers are now based outside their local wards in centralised, overcrowded police stations and emergency response teams have further to travel, leading to potential longer waiting times when responding to emergencies. In the meantime, many of these former police stations have been turned into commercial premises, restaurants or luxury flats in the private sector.
10 years ago, most neighbourhoods benefited from well resourced, proactive community policing with dedicated ward officers, Community Support Officers and a supervising Sergeant in their local wards. Now these officers are spread thin across several wards, leading to increased administrative workloads and less time on the beat. Many emergency response teams have consistently seen a reduction in their officers, some operating at minimum strength when demand on their services has continued to increase.
If we want to help the police get back on its feet again, resorting police numbers to pre-austerity levels on its own is not enough to reverse the damage caused by austerity. With a reduction of police stations across England & Wales, where will these 19,000 officers be based? Will new police stations be built? Will there be an increase in police vehicles and will fast response training courses be made available to these officers to ensure they are able to drive to emergencies rapidly? Will investment to the police’s IT infrastructure be made to ensure these officers can access crime reporting systems and intelligence databases? As a rank and file institution, will there be an increase of Sergeants and Inspectors to supervise and line-manage 19,000 new officers?
Despite the Government claiming that austerity has ended, the real term shortages of funding in the police is still prevalent. Just a few days after the general election, The Metropolitan Police Commissioner specified that the Met is still expected to make savings of up to £200M in the next 3 years, presenting a real terms funding gap at a time when senior officers believed austerity in policing was finally over. This presents a major challenge in the recruitment of additional officers, which is not a cheap task.
As well as uniforms, each new officer requires a range of modern equipment to conduct their work, from personal protective equipment, to IT devices such as body cameras, a computer or tablet. But with reduced finances, purchasing these essential items for officers is problematic. When the decision was reached to issue every police officer in London a body camera to improve transparency in police work, existing budgets could not cater for this. Instead of obtaining the funding from Central Government, in 2014, the then Mayor of London and current Prime Minister sold New Scotland Yard [the former headquarters of the the Met since 1967] for £370M to an Abu Dhabi Financial Group, who will convert the site into luxury flats and a hotel. The monies raised was then used to purchase body cameras and some tablets for frontline officers. This begs the question of whether the Government will provide additional funding to police forces to ensure they can afford the cost of police equipment during mass officer recruitment, or whether more communities will see their local police stations sold off to balance the books.
Officers of all ranks have worked tirelessly since 2010 to provide the best service to the public in the face of unforgivable cuts to their resources. They have also regularly been expected to carry out the role of Social & Mental Health Services in the community, given the significant cuts in these sectors too. Moreover, despite the reduction in officer numbers during the past decade, the amount of officers being on long-term sick leave has increased and surpassed 2010 figures, when the number of officers was much higher – demonstrating the toll the job can have on individual officers. Yet the Government has made no indication of whether any additional welfare and support services will be made available for Police Officers.
Despite these pressures, the police are one of the only public services which cannot unionise or go on strike to demand more resources or better working conditions. To this end, they do not have the equivalent employment rights enjoyed by other workers due of the nature of the job they do on behalf of the public. They are simply left at the mercy of the Government to understand the challenges they face, provide sufficient resources to meet their needs as well as improve their working conditions.
We need to have an honest and ongoing political conversation about policing. It is simply not enough to make popular pledges during election campaigns to attract voters, when important underlying concerns are being ignored. The limited policing pledges made by the Government during the 2019 general election may have offered false hope to the public at a time when root and branch reform is required in the provision of police resources. Substance was missing from political rhetoric and it is now the responsibility of every politician to actively hold the Government to account on their policing record and persistently challenge ongoing shortcomings.