British policing is structured around the local but criminals aren’t constrained by lines on maps so the police can’t afford to be either.
Local knowledge, intelligence, relationships and expertise are essential to keep local communities safe and build trust and legitimacy between the public and their police service. But crime is changing, and so must we. Every local force has a duty to protect the vulnerable from exploitation and tackle cybercrime, terrorism and human trafficking, but the skills and capabilities needed to do so effectively are often specialist in nature and can be expensive to provide.
It’s time for us to develop our network with a sharing economy, connecting demand to capacity and assets. It’s commonplace in the commercial world with apps enabling people to rent property from peers, hire cars for a couple of hours and return them ready for the next user, or connect passengers to share taxis with those making the same journeys. Culturally, ownership of assets is increasingly unimportant but assured access is vital.
Specialist capabilities, like the armed response to a terrorist threat, support on an investigation into a complex ring of child abusers or use of surveillance to track organised criminals involved in people smuggling, can be strengthened and made more affordable if they’re delivered through a network.
We have a long history of forces coming together to collectively tackle the biggest issues. In recent years, we’ve seen much more collaboration but it has tended to focus on moving officers into large operating units – an often bureaucratic, disruptive process. We think the future of specialist capabilities needs to be based on a supply and demand model. Major crime is often concentrated in certain parts of the country, so forces that investigate fewer of these cases could boost their local capabilities with additional highly trained investigators and resources when they need it through pay-as-you-go or a subscription.
This model already exists in pockets of policing and needn’t require top down management determining what services go where or big structural change. It does require commitment to a sharing mindset from all police leaders, a solid understanding of local requirements and demand and capacity across the country, and an expert lead to ensure the best possible service. Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners must have confidence access is guaranteed when called upon and that the service meets their communities’ needs.
This case for change is based on research and a review of the policing network. Our initial recommendations are published today and will be considered by Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners to consider. The review has shown meeting demand for specialist capabilities can be a challenge on some occasions, while in some areas there is an excess of officers and resources beyond proportionate levels of contingency. For example, almost all forces have a covert static surveillance tactic but last year 24 per cent of forces used it fewer than ten times. It is vital that armed response vehicles are locally located so there’s a timely specialist armed response in all areas, including rural areas. However, while all forces had officers trained in a particularly highly specialised armed policing tactic, only half used it. This is not efficient, nor is it conscionable when budgets are so constrained.
When we truly understand the demand for these services, we can ensure resources are in place in areas of high demand where officers will be regularly using their specialist skills and therefore doing so to a higher standard. In areas of lower demand, highly capable, specialised services could be delivered in a much more cost-effective way. Reduced training and equipment costs could enable reinvestment where it is most urgently required and officers and resources can be redeployed to other priorities.
Seizing the opportunity to strengthen the policing network won’t be easy but the case for transformation is compelling - specialist capabilities there when needed, delivered by skilled officers and staff, with the costs of surplus services available to reinvest where they are needed most.
We know that people are not interested in where the officer who responds to a hostage situation comes from, or in which part of the country officers monitor cyber-criminals, but they do expect it to be done effectively and efficiently with clear lines of accountability to the public. We need to meet those expectations.