Will Tanner: Police stations have had their day as technology puts officers back on beat

FEW buildings have as much cultural resonance as the local police station. Perhaps only the local church or the hospital, the cathedral of that other secular religion, the NHS, are afforded the same reverence. As a visible symbol of law and order and resort in times of trouble, police stations afford communities a sense of security.

Technology

It should therefore come as no surprise that plans by Julia Mulligan, North Yorkshire’s new police and crime commissioner, to sell the force’s headquarters has been met with “grave concerns” from local councils. Two years ago, across the border in South Yorkshire, similar plans from former Chief Constable Med Hughes to close 13 front counters at local stations faced even greater opposition.

The rationale is partly one of efficiency. In times of austerity, public services must sweat every asset to strive to deliver more for less. The police are no exception, with £2.4bn of savings to find by 2015. Julia Mulligan hopes to save some of the £820,000 spent each year running the current headquarters.

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Yet this is not just about cost-cutting, the way citizens interact with their police forces is changing too. Public visits to police stations have been falling for decades, as citizens are increasingly choosing different ways to keep in touch.

Recent surveys show that less than one per cent of people use police stations to keep up to date with local crime and policing, compared to 54 per cent who prefer leaflets through their letterbox and 20 per cent who keep in touch via email or the internet.

The same is true of how crime is reported: since 2008, the Metropolitan Police has seen a 20 per cent fall in crime reported at London’s stations and a corresponding 32 per cent rise in internet and email reports.

The police station may conjure up fierce emotions, but it is becoming less relevant to people’s day-to-day lives. Recent research by Reform has shown that in London fewer than two members of the public now walk into police stations each hour.

Nor is this just a metropolitan phenomenon: in 2011, the aforementioned Med Hughes said that he would have closed South Yorkshire’s counters even if budgets were in rude health. In his words, “people only ever attend a police station when they are asked to by us”.

Crucially, the closure of underused police stations offers an opportunity to transform policing for the better. Innovative police forces are closing stations to make way for more citizen-friendly services.

In 2005, Warwickshire Police Authority closed police stations to make way for two new Justice Centres in partnership with other local organisations. The new centres act as a “one-stop shop” for victims and the wider community, housing not just police but also courts, probation, youth and victim services.

By bringing the agencies together, a seamless service for citizens is realised for less money: together the centres delivered over £13m in immediate savings, as well as annual efficiencies of over £1.2m a year. In urban areas, smaller units are often more appropriate: in Japan, city police have long used “kobans” – police boxes housing up to four officers – in busy urban locations like shopping centres and densely-populated residential districts.

Meanwhile, new technologies are making bricks and mortar less important for police officers as well as the public. The best forces take officers out of police stations altogether. Since 2003, Chicago’s police department has used innovative technology to maximise the time officers spend fighting crime. Patrol cars are fitted with portable data terminals, allowing officers to query license plates, search for mugshots, and even fill in incident reports while out on the beat.

Police productivity has soared: the time taken to retrieve a criminal record has fallen from four hours to a few seconds, while the time taken to log evidence was cut by two-thirds. The time and effort saved has allowed the force to abolish 345 back-office positions and released over 90 once-deskbound officers to front line duties.

Changing public demands and new technology are rapidly putting the traditional police station model out of business.

Where the public can report crimes from the comfort of their homes and police officers can fill in forms and retrieve intelligence when on the beat, we shouldn’t be surprised when we need fewer buildings. Just as once established high street brands are falling victim to online shopping, the bricks and mortar of the police station should make way for the policing of tomorrow.

The modern-day George Dixon will continue to cut crime, even as Dock Green Station is nostalgically consigned to history.