Chris Sims is the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police and is the ACPO lead on bureacracy.
So it is with front line policing. Efforts to pin it down to a physical location or quantify groups of offices are no more than counting angels on pinheads. The familiar cry of ‘protect the frontline’ should not be about maintaining numbers of uniformed officers but about jealously guarding the things that matter to the public: reducing crime, resolving problems, engaging, serving and offering protection from the less visible, but equally serious, threats of organised crime and terrorism.
The police service recognises this challenge and is applying a ‘can-do’ attitude to making it happen. The body politic, however, frets that the public is not sophisticated enough to rise above the hackneyed demand for more officers on the beat.
So does the recent debate on defining the front line matter or should we treat it as more unintelligible data? Meeting the financial challenges facing the police service is tough. The task becomes impossible if, rather than having the freedom to transform police forces, Chief Constables are constrained by artificial ring-fencing of the front line – now officially defined by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary as 61% of the service.
My own force, West Midlands Police, faces one of the hardest challenges because of its relative reliance on Government grant rather than local tax. We have to close a gap of £125 million, that appears annually, by the end of the four-year Comprehensive Spending Review.
We fully support efforts to save money through changes to national procurement and by adopting a new approach to information technology. Like every force we are rigorously examining the legendary ‘back office’ and challenging how it operates. We are engaged with the private sector to consider the merits of outsourcing and are fighting bureaucracy at every turn. Reducing the number of police forces would provide significant savings but that is politically contentious and not what the Government wants.
None of these strategies should be neglected but the politically safe areas – the so called back offices - offer less scope than might be supposed and cannot alter or hide the twin challenge faced by police finances. Firstly, the cuts are heavily front-loaded meaning that tangible savings must be found in the first two years. Secondly, the policing budget is heavily skewed (perhaps unsustainably) towards staff costs which make up some 85% of the total spend. Given those factors, the harsh reality is that only a reduction in the number of employees, both police officers and police staff can meet the challenge.
Chief constables understand that policing cannot be immune from changes taking place across the public sector. In West Midlands we calculate that we must lose about 2,250 posts over the four years. In painful and difficult circumstances we have already lost about approx 1,000 of these, allowing vacancies to fall predominantly in corporate functions. We are absolutely clear that to protect the policing outcomes that are precious to us and to the people we serve; we will have to in fast time transform the whole organisation. We will need to challenge how we operate and the scope of what we do. An early, perhaps trivial, example is that this week West Midlands Police have announced that we will no longer accept reports of lost property, a largely ineffective but still longstanding police role which costs around £300,000 per year.
Despite the view presented by the inspectorate, that police are largely invisible, most of my officers work in uniform from local police stations. But this part of the police force cannot be immune from cuts of this depth and we have already gathered enough evidence to show that careful attention to process, structure and technology will allow us to deliver more with less.
Staff numbers do matter, of course, but I believe that it is not impossible to continue to aim at service improvement while making the reduction in numbers required. A smaller but reshaped uniform contingent can deliver the visibility and engagement the public wants.
Going forward, I have absolute confidence that we can serve and protect the people of the West Midlands. My greater concerns are about the impact of the cuts on the agencies we work closely with, e.g. in housing, health, social services and education, and, in the longer term, about the impact of the recruitment freeze.
Over the past months I have been presenting this picture to my staff and to the communities of the West Midlands. They may not like it, but they understand and trust the strength and resilience of West Midlands Police and the Police Authority to make the right choices.
Yet at a national level, despite the will of ministers, the debate remains less sophisticated. The ‘protect the front line’ mantra and the political obsession with police numbers remains potent – almost medieval. For the sake of the public this clamour must not be allowed to frustrate our efforts to transform policing.
A version of this article first appeared in The Times on 11 April 2011.