Mark Rowe

What policing?

by Mark Rowe

This time of year sees the dry but vital work of setting budgets by police forces – what does that mean for policing? asks Mark Rowe.

Citizens, businesses and their security managers may not be concerned about the ins and outs of police budgets; they are purely interested in outcomes, the service they get (or rather, for retailers and other businesses calling for police response to a real-time crime, how consistent the response is – in all that they do, businesses crave certainty). Outside politics, who cares whether the money for police forces originates from central government, or local taxes? It’s all tax.

It does matter greatly to the party politicians. Hence while Conservative Home Secretary James Cleverly was last month hailing that the Government was putting up to £843m more into ‘keeping our streets safe, so that every officer and community has the support and resources they need to cut crime, protect the public and build confidence in policing’, the Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan was complaining of a refusal by Government to provide enough funding for the Metropolitan Police, the London Fire Brigade and Transport for London.

Last month saw the publishing of provisional allocations of grants to police and crime commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales for the financial year 2024 to 2025. Most money for the police is handed out from central Government to each force (another of Sadiq Khan’s complaints was that less than 20 per cent of funding for the police in London used to come from regional government, that is, the Mayor. “But because of the inadequate funding from national Government, the share of funding from City Hall for the police is now close to a quarter”).

Just like farmers will never say that the weather has never satisfactory, let alone ideal, for their crops, so the police, and PCCs and London mayors and whoever has political charge of the police, will never say they’re entirely happy with what they’ve been granted. In their response, the association of commissioners the APCC welcomed ‘greater flexibility in locally raised funding’ or in plainer English central Government has given PCCs permission to tax more locally. As that Home Office allocations report put it, ‘Local policing bodies raise a substantial proportion of their funding locally through Council Tax Precept. In addition, the Home Office reallocates funding for national policing priorities,’ for things such as counter-terror response that crosses police force boundaries.

In their comment, the PCCs did raise how very many competing priorities each police force has: they mentioned anti-social behaviour and neighbourhood policing, digital crimes (‘officers need the skills and technology to be able to defeat them’, the PCCs commented), violence against women and ‘coercive and controlling behaviour’, drug dealing, the often related gun and knife crime, hate crime (the Met this month said it has arrested 400 people ‘in relation to offences linked to the Israel-Hamas conflict’) and other sorts of crime (burglary? theft of cars?), each emotive and liable to get their moments of publicity and hence greater priority. Investigating and evidence-gathering these crimes may be complex, and time-consuming and therefore expensive.

Where does that leave businesses, given that much crime is against them, or on or around their premises, whether by day or night? A clue from last month is when Sadiq Khan joined local neighbourhood and specialist Met Police officers on a ‘Winter Nights’ patrol in Greenwich. As visitors to that part of south-east London well know, besides the town centre, you have transport hubs (Docklands Light Railway, trains and buses) and the tourist attraction the Cutty Sark. Crime against retail and pub-related, pick-pocketing of visitors, anti-social behaviour or rowdiness by those visitors (because the same people can be a cause of crime and mischief, or a victim of it), counter-terrorism risk in crowded places (the murder of soldier Lee Rigby happened up the road relatively speaking at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich) are all geographically jumbled.

The talk by police, and Sadiq Khan, was of targeted policing activity’. Sadiq Khan also used that depressing phrase that you hear police say about no end of high-volume crimes – fraud, car theft – although oddly they do not say that for rape, presumably because they fear an outraged response. The phrase is ‘we cannot arrest our way out of this issue’.

In other words, those who carry out crime, won’t necessarily be collared, let alone put through courts and punished, for any or even all of their wrong-doing.

Where does that leave us? With what a senior Met Police officer, cramming jargon in, called ‘bespoke operations targeting hotspots where women and girls feel most unsafe, operations targeting knife crime and violent robbery, and conducting surge activity to ensure that Londoners are kept safe’. To translate that into plainer English, because police cannot be everywhere at once, they will go with the data – making a ‘surge’ with a large or at least some presence where most people and crime is known, whether by place or time of day (or year, such as an op against counterfeit goods before Christmas, as carried out for example by City of London Police). To carry out a ‘surge’, as a ‘show of force’ (a telling phrase) does have unfortunate echoes of the United States’ military in Iraq after their 2003 invasion that found itself in a war that required the US commander in Iraq David Patraeus to come up with the strategy (or tactic) of a ‘surge’ to best stretch his troops – with however a withdrawal and leaving Iraq to the Iraqis in mind.

Sadiq Khan also talked up ‘my Violence Reduction Unit’ – other cities and areas have similar units – as a way of getting to the roots of violence, whether poor housing, lack of employment or opportunities. That’s welcome – any number of people working in the crime reduction field have realised that there has to be more than the treadmill of catching a thief or drug dealer, reporting them to the authorities, awaiting an outcome, and at most the criminal going to prison for a spell and coming out and starting all over.

Except that if the police are spinning plates – dashing from one ‘operation’ or day or week of action (including under the umbrella of the Project Servator deployment method and patrol tactic, recently in Manchester for example) to the next, never sitting on a crime type in a sustained way – we can hardly expect that the other public services are not, also, doing their equivalent of keeping plates spinning. Take Operation Duxford by South Yorkshire Police in Doncaster – a truly impressive number of officers in one place, but what about a month from then (the operation is due to last for a week)?

Photo by Mark Rowe: the perimeter railings (and behind them, armed Met Police officers), Downing Street, London last month.

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