Building Sustainable Societies

Reassurance policing: Will it wither under fiscal restraint?

On 10 May 2012, 30,000 police officers took to London’s streets to protest against the government’s 20% reductions in police funding, changes to the service and pay cuts. In response, Government Ministers have repeatedly sought to assuage public fears that this would adversely impact on front-line police presence, and have urged police chiefs to make deeper cuts in their ‘middle and back office’ staff to protect the front-line, notably visible patrols.

Nevertheless, last month, according to a House of Commons analysis of updated Home Office figures, it was announced that nearly 6,800 front-line police jobs have been cut since the 2010 general election as a result of austerity measures. This is considerably more than the 5,800 front-line jobs Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) predicted (in July this year) that would be lost over the entire five-year parliament. The figures show there has been an average 6% reduction in front-line policing across England and Wales. Eight forces have lost over 10% of their front-line officers, including 16% in Warwickshire and 13% in Nottinghamshire. This underscores just how public policing is undergoing rapid and fundamental change.

This new discourse of ‘leaner’ policing contrasts starkly with the positive messages conveyed to the public in healthier economic times and leaves uncertainty about the future prospects of ‘reassurance policing’ through visible patrols and the extent to which fiscal restraint signals its demise.

Recasting the police mission

The past two decades have seen several significant twists and turns in the direction and priorities of policing in Britain. The 1990s saw a narrowing of the police mission to a preoccupation with ‘crime-fighting’ and ‘priority crimes’; reflected in the 1993 White Paper mantra that ‘the main job of the police is to catch criminals’. By contrast, the 2000s witnessed a more expansive vision of policing under the New Labour government tied to efforts to manage public insecurities associated with the reassurance policing agenda. A growing recognition of a ‘reassurance gap’ between public perceptions of crime and the declining risk of victimisation and deteriorating public confidence in the police, saw the police mission recast, in the words of the 2004 White Paper, to include ‘both preventing and detecting crime and reassuring the public’.

This vision of policing signalled both a more capacious ambition of governmental intervention and a narrower focus on the regulation of individual behaviour and local social order as the crucibles in which the fortunes of governments are forged. Uncertain of their values and purposes under pressures of globalisation, governments have re-sighted their energies on managing public displays of behaviour. Under New Labour, this expressed itself in a zeal to deliver local public sector reform and tangible changes to quality of life, in ways that are visible and recognisable to the electorate. A key philosophy behind the shift was that citizens should see and feel the difference.

Delivering irreversible change that citizens might notice became a major policy driver. In 2006 Tony Blair reflected on the importance of public perceptions: ‘You can argue about statistics until the cows come home and there is usually a very great credibility gap between whatever statistics are put out and whatever people actually think is happening, but the real point is not about statistics, it is about how people feel, and if they feel safer and more confident, because the fear of crime is as important in some respects as crime itself.’

In the ensuing period, citizens across England and Wales have become accustomed to policing reforms, backed by sustained funding increases, designed to manage public perceptions of local safety. Key to the delivery of this reassurance agenda has been expanded numbers of police officers and strategies to augment their visibility, familiarity and accessibility.

Notably, the introduction of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) in 2002 and their subsequent expansion became a linchpin in convincing the public they could ‘feel safer and more confident’. Allied to this was the establishment of a National Reassurance Policing Programme between 2003–2005. This found that visible policing interventions, such as foot patrols, attuned to key drivers of insecurity identified by communities had a positive impact on crime, perceptions of crime and antisocial behaviour, feelings of safety and public confidence in the police. Its success informed the introduction of neighbourhood policing teams across the country. By 2010, the size of the police workforce in England and Wales reached an all-time high, at just under 245,000, including nearly 17,000 PCSOs.

Austerity measures

Things changed in the light of the comprehensive spending review in 2010 which yielded 20% cuts to police budgets (equivalent to £1.2 billion). The Coalition Government abandoned the previous political shibboleth of increasing police officer numbers and the police have been allowed to enter a period of significant contraction. Total police employees are estimated to decline by 32,300 up to 2015; a 13% fall from its 2010 peak. This includes reductions of 15,600 police staff, 15,000 police constables and 1,700 PCSOs. Consequentially, police numbers will reach 2004 levels, a time when reassurance policing was emerging and there was a clarion call by politicians for greater numbers of police on the streets. The first year of the financial cuts witnessed the largest annual fall in police numbers in 40 years and the first annual decline in PCSOs since their introduction in 2002. Given 16,700 fewer police officers and PCSOs, this impact is likely to be felt the keenest in front-line and neighbourhood policing teams. Moreover, the Winsor Review forecasts severe restraint in public service finances for decades to come.

The dark shadow cast by spending cuts and the volte face on police numbers loom large over the earlier policy preoccupations with reassurance policing and allied goals of managing subjective insecurities and impressions of order. One obvious implication is that the police may attend less to the disorder and anti-social behaviour problems that adversely shape public confidence and perceptions of security. Significantly, the 2010 White Paper, harked back to the narrower policing remit of the mid-1990s, in identifying that the ‘key priority for the police is to cut crime’.

An end to reassurance policing?

Nevertheless, the impending reform to police governance through publicly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) from November 2012 heralds potentially contradictory implications for continuation of the reassurance agenda. On the one hand, it is likely to deepen efforts to make policing ‘citizen-focused’ and enmesh its operational delivery more significantly in public expectations and popular demands. In their desire to respond to what matters most to their electorates and embed a ‘public voice’ into policing strategies, they might arguably place reassurance and the ‘politics of fear’ centre-stage. Subsequently, demands from the electorate for more ‘Bobbies on the beat’ is likely to preoccupy incoming PCCs, as citizens have become accustomed to seeing and expecting a level of police visibility.

On the other hand, the room for manoeuvre that PCCs will have to reverse funding cuts will be limited. Whilst they can raise the local precept on council tax-payers, the Home Secretary has the power to order a local referendum if any PCC insists on an ‘excessive’ increase in the police precept. Moreover, the escalating cost of the PCC elections raises questions about whether that money might have been better spent on keeping more front-line police officers and PCSOs in post. Consequently, the British public may have to readjust expectations regarding the level of visible patrol presence provided by the public police.

Professor Crawford is the Director of the Security and Justice Hub of the ‘Building Sustainable Societies’ transformation fund project. He is also Pro-Dean for Research and Innovation in the Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law at the University of Leeds.

This post was co-authored by Adam Crawford with Dr Anna Barker from the School of Social and International Studies at the University of Bradford. It draws on more extensive arguments to be published as ‘Policing urban insecurities through visible patrols: Managing public expectations in times of fiscal restraint’, in R. Lippert and K. Walby (eds) Policing Cities: Urban Securitization and Regulation in a 21st Century World (Routledge, forthcoming).

This is the third in a series of three initial posts on contemporary policing issues. In the first, Adam Crawford considers the advent of police and crime commissioners (PCCs), and in the second, the constraints facing policing in times of austerity.

Together with colleagues, he is hosting a major conference on 17 January 2013 at the University of Leeds entitled: “The New Democratic Governance of Policing: The Role and Implications of Elected Police and Crime Commissioners”. The conference will be co-sponsored by the British Society of Criminology, Policing Network and the Security and Justice Hub of the Building Sustainable Societies Initiative of the University of Leeds. Further information is available here.

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