Craig Paterson: Fighting crime with thinning blue line

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FIVE police forces have been identified by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) as being unprepared for further cuts. Worryingly, two – West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire – are in this region.

According to a recent report by the National Audit Office, both forces responded to the 25 per cent cuts between 2010 and 2014 with short- term-measures rather than long-term efficiency plans, such as the redeployment of officers instead of external collaborations and technological innovations. This meant that further cuts would be likely to impact upon front-line services and the public.

Although West Yorkshire had made significant savings, they were criticised for an unwillingness to restructure the force and to prepare for an extended period of reductions in their resources.

South Yorkshire Police faced a similar judgement that was inflamed by higher than average levels of crime and an increased fear of crime amongst the public.

The criticism in both forces was not directed at bobbies on the beat but at senior management, who were seen to have not responded to the need to restructure the force in preparation for two parliaments’ worth of cuts.

In South Yorkshire, this negative experience was compounded by ongoing questions about leadership and investigations into Hillsborough, Orgreave and Rotherham.

Looking at the national picture, David Cameron will have been pleasantly surprised that police cuts implemented during 2010-15 did not lead to a rise in crime. This has provided impetus for the new Conservative Government immediately to enact further cuts with what could be argued to amount to a democratic mandate. Policing rarely crept on to the agenda during the recent election campaign, which implies public approval for the direction of travel with police policy.

So, what does this mean for West and South Yorkshire? First, there is no way that the Government or the police service can accurately predict how any cuts will impact upon crime levels over the next five years.

The relationship between crime and the police is much more complex than a simple correlation between the number of police officers and levels of offending. The challenge for police organisations over the next five years is to identify and influence the factors that generate crime and, where appropriate, to relinquish those functions for which responsibility should lie elsewhere.

Even prior to the economic crisis of 2008, the primacy of the police as monopoly providers of crime control had slowly waned as local councils and commercial security firms became increasingly involved in crime prevention work.

Police Community Support Officers arrived in 2002, providing the visible presence so valued by the public. These changes took place alongside huge increases in police spending which came to a sudden halt with the 2008 crisis and the arrival of the Liberal-Conservative coalition in 2010.

Since then, Government funding for forces has been slashed by £2.3bn, or 25 per cent, which has meant a reduction in police numbers of 15 per cent between March 2010 and September 2014.

According to the Police Federation, this means 957 fewer officers in West Yorkshire, 417 fewer in Humberside, 281 in South Yorkshire, and 82 in North Yorkshire.

Home Secretary Theresa May has emphasised the durability of crime rates in the face of reduced police numbers. An image of a bloated police service has emerged with the sanctity of police independence questioned owing to the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners and repeated challenges to the competence and professionalism of officers as a result of local scandals.

The Government would like to think that a tidal shift in public opinion is taking place. The question is no longer how many officers do we want on the beat but how small a police force is sufficient to provide adequate security? Thus, the policing question becomes: how do we fund and co-ordinate the increasingly disparate group of people who, with and beyond the police, help to ensure security and order?

This question demands a re-evaluation of the police role to determine which activities lie inextricably within police remit and which can be taken up by other agencies.

It is these questions that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary think that South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire are struggling to address.

Craig Paterson is a senior lecturer in criminology in Sheffield Hallam University’s department of law and criminology.