The Police Chiefs' Blog
One year on from the start of the first lockdown
Police Chiefs' Blog: Martin Hewitt - Chief Constables Council January 2021
What have we learnt about dealing with mental health during the pandemic?
DCC Julie Cooke discusses the importance of Pride
How we can stop female genital mutilations
Data Protection Day
Police Chiefs' Blog: Martin Hewitt - Chief Constables Council January 2020
International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
Drones and the police
Next >>>

Mark Rowley is Chief Constable of Surrey Police, and ACPO lead on futures.

The Telegraph has been a fierce advocate for police reform, an enthusiastic supporter of the coalition government's ambitious agenda. Police service leaders are currently taxed by financial imperatives, the potential recessionary rise in demand and the need to continually question and improve our service. An article last week by Michael Nicholson seemed to me, as a serving Chief Constable, to be nothing more than a counsel of despair. It prompted me to give some of my thoughts on the issues raised.

Surrey Police, which I have the privilege to lead, is the only force growing the number of police constables despite cuts, albeit not as great as many other forces who start from widely differing financial positions. From a baseline of 1,345 we have set out to grow our number of constables by 200. The force is not in debt, nor is it withdrawing local policing teams. We are pursuing four avenues of reform; cutting management by nearly half and empowering the frontline, cutting support services by over 40 per cent, collaborating with neighbours and sharing buildings.

This last point is contentious, but another fact may assist. Surrey County Council have led an audit of publicly owned buildings in Surrey - a county with a population of 1.1 million. The results are staggering –over 6,000 public buildings, because from central government to local agencies we have not been joined up. In Surrey, we are putting local policing teams in buildings alongside others - such as community centres and council offices. Shared rent makes them more viable, while we sell and more importantly, stop maintaining, ramshackle estate built between 1870 and 1970, that the public rarely visits. Unsurprisingly, consultation shows the public want patrolling officers and PCSOs above buildings!

Is it all working? Only a year in, the signs are encouraging. Crime is down and I can produce lots of other statistics – but I know the scepticism they provoke. The public’s view and our independent research tells us that when people call us for help regarding crime or anti-social behaviour, not only do a majority start with a positive view of Surrey’s policing, but four times as many end with their opinion improved rather than disappointed.

Much has been written on police bureaucracy. Rightly so, but often for the wrong reasons. Some bureaucracy is essential - the courts want reliable records with 'i’s dotted and 't’s crossed. But much is not and, more importantly, disables the discretion of frontline. On Google, quotes from every Home Secretary since Michael Howard express a determination to 'cut red tape'. But though the rhetoric has always been the same, successive governments have increased the burden over 25 years.

For example, the rules currently require even a push has to be recorded as an assault with no room for discretion - and then the imperative that detection rates should rise leads even a minor altercation between teenagers to result in a petty prosecution or caution. Those chiefs who refuse to play that game - I am one - are regularly criticised for poor detection rates. The reality is I encourage frontline officers to use their common sense - to find pragmatic solutions: the modern equivalent of a clip round the ear! The Home Office is well practiced at persuading successive ministers to hang on the seductive levers of targets and rules 'just in case', in the naive belief national stricture can prevent local errors. I hope Theresa May is more successful with the scissors than her predecessors.

Last week's article also expressed dismay that many frontline officers are not visible. That is because the 'frontline' includes officers doing surveillance against organised crime, forensics experts, detectives investigating everything from murder to burglary, officers investigating child abuse and domestic violence and trying to support vulnerable victims through the court system and staff who answer 999s calls. There was also confusion as to why fewer than a fifth of those uniformed officers were visible at any moment. But just as rolling news has a dozen presenters come and go over a week on the BBC or Sky, policing needs many officers to fill one seat. As officers work 40 hours per week, and a week is 168 hours, then to provide a 24/7/365 service inevitably takes more than four officers.

So I learn two things, the fact that policing has to do much unseen work to protect the public from 21st century threats still needs better explanation, and public sector reform remains a leadership challenge to wean people away from symbols such as buildings or comfort blankets such as bureaucracy. To deliver a high quality policing service in the face of these cuts to policing is a challenge that should not be underestimated. But far from taking heed of those counselling despair, in Surrey we are busy getting on with it.

A version of this article appeared in The Telegraph on 11 April 2011.