A Thinning Blue Line? The Context of Current Debate on Britain’s Police Levels

Main Image Credit The friendly neighbourhood Bobby is often a vital source of information and intelligence gained through local knowledge and dialogue. Now, however, he or she might be engaged in duties unrelated to crime prevention. Courtesy of Jorge Royan/Wikimedia.

While the recent UK terror attacks have focused attention on adequate resources for neighbourhood policing and the impact this may have on forces’ local intelligence coverage, a far greater danger to national security is the shrinking of other public services. This has diverted police resources away from the activities necessary to prevent crime and terrorism, an issue often overlooked in the context of the current debate.

Following Saturday night’s terror attack on London Bridge – the third in as many months ­– the political parties fighting tomorrow’s election have focused on national security, with police cuts being placed front and centre.

While opposition parties have criticised the loss of more than 20,000 police officers across the country since 2010, it is impossible to prove a direct causal link between police cuts and specific terrorist incidents.

Prime Minister Theresa May countered that her government has ceased and even reversed police cuts since 2015, with the number of armed officers increasing substantially in the past year. However, previous reductions in police numbers have undoubtedly impeded forces’ local intelligence coverage, and the lift in authorised firearms officers does not soften the impact of cuts to neighbourhood policing.

Fewer officers embedded in the community – collecting information and intelligence through local knowledge and dialogue – mean lost opportunities in identifying those who pose an increased risk to the public.

As Robert Quick, former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations of the Metropolitan Police, explained earlier this week, despite counterterrorism funding being ringfenced, cuts to the general policing budget mean a reduction in neighbourhood policing, resulting in a loss of intelligence from communities about people supporting violent extremism.

A comprehensive 2016 study on lone-actor extremists carried out by a consortium of research organisations led by RUSI found that 45% of religiously inspired extremists leaked information about their intentions directly to friends or family before carrying out their attack.

The research highlighted the crucial role of communities, arguing that combatting the threat of lone-actor terrorism requires ‘ensuring the public is able to recognise extremist behaviour, has avenues to report it and, crucially, is willing to do so’.

Another study of lone-actor terrorists conducted in 2014 characterised 52.9% of its sample as socially isolated, concluding that this result ‘suggests community services hold the potential to be the most effective discipline in combating this facet of behaviour.’

Community policing is crucial to ensure that the authorities maintain an active relationship with the public they are duty-bound to protect, and cuts in this area will inevitably result in important intelligence regarding individuals’ activities, associates and intentions going unnoticed or unreported.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd has argued that the UK’s Prevent Strategy aims to gather such intelligence by engaging with local community leaders directly rather than through the police. However, it is important not to understate the role of police officers in Prevent, as it is they who are most directly engaged in day-to-day monitoring of the local area, individuals of interest and emerging crime problems.

But this issue extends far beyond reductions in police spending. Cuts to other public services – most notably community psychiatric care and local ambulance trusts – have resulted in officers increasingly being used as all-purpose first responders, stepping in where other agencies would have previously provided the support, according to Alex Marshall, head of the College of Policing.

In 2014, a national inquiry was launched by the Association of Chief Police Officers, after several forces complained that resources were being diverted from front line crime duties to pick up the slack caused by cuts to local ambulance trusts.

But the problem persisted, and in 2016 a Freedom of Information request revealed that thousands of critically ill patients had been transported to hospitals in police cars during 2015 due to a lack of available ambulances.

Furthermore, the College of Policing estimates that 20–40% of police time is taken up dealing with incidents involving people with mental health problems. While many of these will be legitimate criminal matters with a mental health component, others will also be non-criminal mental health crises that should not require a police response.

Over the past decade, there has been an increase of more than 50% in the police’s use of powers to detain people under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act, which allows officers to remove someone from a public place and take them to a place of safety.

Police use of Section 136 increased by almost 20% between 2014/15 and 2015/16, primarily because cuts to community psychiatric care mean that some areas no longer have enough mental healthcare availability for people in the community.

Apart from diverting already stretched police resources from the activities needed to combat crime and terrorism, this means that patients risk not receiving the urgent medical attention they require.

The picture that emerges is a troubling one: of a police service that is increasingly engaged in duties unrelated to crime prevention, tasks for which they have neither the resources nor, arguably, the expertise to carry out effectively.

While cuts to community policing have inevitably reduced forces’ intelligence gathering capabilities, reductions in other public services are equally relevant, but are often overlooked in the context of national security.

Reversing cuts to community policing is often presented as a panacea. However, this is unlikely to be effective if the police continue to be required to pick up the slack created by cuts to other vital public services. So, a mature debate about sustaining the entire gamut of community activities is required.


Alexander Babuta

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