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Police reform - a blueprint for change



Harvey Redgrave, Chief Executive | Joe Caluori, Head of Research and Policy, Ellie Covell, Head of Strategy (Performance) | Jon Clements, Executive Director | Danny Shaw, Senior Associate

Tuesday 8 March 2022

Sixty years after the Royal Commission on the Police published its final report, the Police Foundation has produced a version for the 2020s and beyond.

‘A New Mode of Protection’ isn’t based on the work of an official, government-sanctioned Commission, as the 1962 paper was, but it’s arguably the closest thing to a Commission report that policing has had since then.

It stretches to 196 pages and has taken the Police Foundation - a respected, independent think-tank - two-and-a-half years’ work (full transparency: Crest recently co-produced a report with the Foundation on the policing of the Covid-19 pandemic).

The project was led by Sir Michael Barber, an education adviser and former head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, who says it offers a “root-and-branch reform agenda” to tackle the challenges of the 21st century and improve the confidence of the public.

The report says policing in England and Wales is at a “critical juncture” and if it does not embrace reform it may be “overwhelmed” by the scale and complexity of demands coming down the track. These are issues which Crest has highlighted in its research on serious violence, county lines drug gangs, and the criminal justice system.

There are 56 detailed recommendations in the report - on crime prevention, legitimacy, workforce skills, leadership, diversity, policing structure and governance. Our Crest experts consider the key findings.

A change in structure – Harvey Redgrave, Chief Executive

The 43-force structure in England and Wales is one of the thorniest and most hotly-contested issues in policing.

The flaws are not hard to identify: a localist structure will always struggle to deal with crimes that cross force and national borders. And it will tend to be inefficient - leading to specialist functions, such as in firearms or surveillance, having to be organised and procured 43 times, diluting expertise and duplicating resources.

But over the years it has been easier to point out problems than come up with an alternative that would garner public consent. That is partly because the existing set up has some benefits. As the strategic review says, a localist model incentivises policing to be more visible, engaged and responsive to local communities and creates space for innovation.

However, by far the biggest barrier to reform is political. No Prime Minister will ever feel confident in signing off a plan that would see vast numbers of MPs campaigning against the closure of their local police force. Even Tony Blair - no defender of the status quo when it came to public services - baulked at the political risks when, in 2006, his Home Secretary Charles Clarke came close to tearing up the existing structure.

There is an analogy here with the National Health Service, where it has long been argued that there is a need to shift resources from hospitals to communities, but where the attempt to put that principle into practice has invariably been met by passionate constituency campaigns to prevent the closure of services.

The strategic review attempts to side-step this problem. Rather than abolishing the 43 forces, it recommends reallocating roles and responsibilities, so that the 43 would remain but in a substantially slimmed-down form, becoming solely responsible for delivering local policing. ‘Regional Police Support Units’ would be established to deliver specialist, operational and business support functions, while Regional Organised Crime Units would be in charge of investigating serious and organised crime, reporting directly to a beefed up National Crime Agency.

Although there are questions over where the boundaries lie for the new units and how they would be funded, it is a potentially elegant solution to a complicated problem. It would provide a more sensible balance between localism - the foundation of the British policing model - and the specialist capabilities increasingly required to respond to changing crime patterns. Whether or not the Home Secretary is tempted to implement the changes will depend on her appetite to leave a legacy of reform.

The complex job of crime prevention – Joe Caluori, Head of Research and Policy

The review recommends that the Government establish a ‘Crime Prevention Agency’ to deliver a Crime Prevention Strategy. The aim would be to reduce the harm and costs of crime through earlier intervention - and serve a wider purpose, including “Horizon scanning to identify emerging threats”.

But the ‘crime prevention’ message could be difficult to land. The public might be forgiven for viewing it as police giving advice on how to avoid being the victim of a crime, rather than catching and punishing the criminal who commits the crime. People might also see crime prevention in terms of running increasingly moribund neighbourhood watch groups.

As well as crime prevention, the review calls on the government to “review local and regional government structures with the explicit aim of promoting increased public service collaboration to prevent complex social problems”.

This is ambitious stuff, though it appears to go with the grain of recent policy-making on cutting violent crime. Home Office-funded Violence Reduction Units (VRUs) and safeguarding responsibilities for police forces already demand effective working across agencies, and the proposed ‘Serious Violence Duty’ in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill pushes further in that direction. But there are still gaps to address. Let’s consider one concrete example - safer schools officers.

School police officers were first introduced in the 1960s. The scheme was revitalised in the early 2000s under Sir Tony Blair as part of the Labour Government’s ‘Street Crime Initiative’. Over time a perception crept in among head teachers, notably voiced by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of the schools watchdog Ofsted, about the types of police officer who were being allocated to the role. It was said that officers close to retirement, or those no longer suited to other frontline policing roles, were often shunted in - freeing up younger colleagues for other posts.

A well-run safer schools programme could play a crucial role in crime reduction. Research in London in 2018, for the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime ‘Youth Voice Survey’, found that young people with a named safer schools officer tended to feel safer in school; their views of the police improved as a result.

Yes, safer schools officers can assist in keeping pupils safe at the end of the school day by being visible and approachable, but they can also talk to pupils, parents and teachers about staying safe online, harmful sexual behaviour, the realities of gang violence, dangers of carrying weapons and the wider consequences of crime for victims and perpetrators alike.

A new generation of safer schools officers could champion children with complex home lives, especially when those kids face exclusion with no one else speaking up for them. Co-ordinating safer schools work could be seen as a job for the Home Office-funded VRUs, but that does not appear to be happening. A Freedom of Information Act request last year revealed there are 683 safer schools in England and Wales; separate figures suggest that most are based in London with forces outside the capital, even those with VRUs, lagging behind.

There is a serious job for a new Crime Prevention Agency - but engaging in complex social issues will require backing from the very top of government and leadership capable of navigating a complex policy environment on the ground.

The skills for the role – Ellie Covell, Head of Strategy

Crest’s work with forces across the country assessing police demand has highlighted the extent to which officers are swamped by rising numbers of cases, the increasing vulnerability of victims and the growing complexity of crime.

The Review seeks to address this, with seven recommendations centring around the skills required of the police workforce of the future. They’re broken down into three categories: relational, investigatory and digital.

The report says the College of Policing should review the police curriculum to increase the focus on relational skills which include conflict management, cultural competency and trauma-awareness. And it suggests that digital intelligence and investigation training should be incorporated into minimum professional standards for all officers.

These are positive ideas - but there is a limit as to what a single officer can be expected to deliver. As time has gone on, the police officer’s role has been subjected to ‘scope creep’ - a well-used consultancy term - while thousands of experienced officers have left policing: 31% of police officers currently have less than 5 years service. Improving basic training and re-focusing on ‘relational’ skills will make a huge difference, but we must recognise how much the young-in-service police workforce still has to learn.

The report also suggests ways of dealing with a shortage of detectives and investigators. It says there’s a need to “shift away from the default assumption that investigator gaps need to be filled by warranted officers” and recommends using non-warranted staff (who do not have the powers of a police officer) to support inquiries into cases which require a high level of digital and financial expertise. Combined with a proposal to improve basic training in this area, this could help to resolve more cases successfully.

But why limit the use of non-warranted officers to complex financial and digital investigations? In the year ending in March 2021, 18% of all crime stemmed from domestic abuse. There would be huge potential in deploying staff who have high levels of ‘relational’ skills to support police officers attending and investigating incidents of domestic abuse.

Improving the relational skills of all officers is vital - but we need to go further to help vulnerable victims; making use of the considerable talents and skills of people outside policing presents a golden opportunity to do so.

Tracking police legitimacy – Jon Clements, Executive Director, Development

It’s hard to maintain something if you can’t measure it. That’s one of the most striking points in the Review’s chapter on legitimacy: it emphasises the importance of people believing the police have the right to exercise their powers - and the stark fact that too many people, particularly Black people, have doubts about it.

The Review calls for “better data and more sophisticated analytics” to support a drive for greater legitimacy. That seems long overdue given how inconsistent the police service has been in attempting to understand the views of the people they serve. Some forces survey their populations, others rely on data collected through the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Crime Survey. Like-for-like comparisons seem impossible and there appear to be few concerted efforts to hear the views of minority or marginalised groups in particular.

The suggestion that the ONS creates a “legitimacy index” is a bold one. The benefits are clear - an agreed set of measures, regularly reported on, would hold both policing and its political masters to account, and expose the costs to legitimacy of particular policies or courses of action, for example, cutting neighbourhood policing, ramping up stop-and-search. In addition, it could provide much-needed nuance and context to the torrent of negative headlines about individual cases of misconduct and incompetence.

But given the influence the index could wield in public discourse, its composition would not (and probably should not) be left to statisticians. Politicians, police and critics will likely have a lot of questions. Should the views of people most likely to suffer crime, or feel the impact of police measures such as stop-and-search, carry more weight than those who probably won’t? Measuring legitimacy has the potential to be a contested exercise - but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile one.

A better led, more diverse workforce – Danny Shaw, Senior Associate

Linked to legitimacy is the composition and behaviour of the police workforce. Here, the Review is at its most radical, recommending a ‘Licence to Practice’ for officers, which would be renewable every five years subject to them demonstrating professional development or presenting a portfolio of achievements. They would also be required to undergo ‘health checks’ on ethical issues. Successive failures at the licensing stage would lead to an officer being barred from the service.

The proposal has the potential to raise standards, though there are likely to be internal objections. The danger with such a scheme is that it ends up being a bureaucratic tick-box exercise that eats up budgets and wastes officers’ time.

More promising is a suggestion for a ‘Police Leadership Centre’. The College of Policing is exploring the idea which would tackle what the Review says is a paucity of leadership training and development in the service at every rank, with a “chronic” lack of competition for chief constable posts.

A focus on leadership, including at sergeant, inspector and superintendent levels, is sorely needed; whether that is best achieved by one national centre or regional hubs is open to question but the analysis in the Review shows that it must be urgently addressed.

However, the most far-reaching recommendation on workforce matters is buried on Page 101: it’s for a new law to allow forces to introduce positive discrimination in order to boost the number of Black and ethnic minority officers. The Review says efforts to increase diversity are not going fast enough. In less than 30 years ethnic minorities will make up over 27% of the population of England and Wales - but on current trends it will take almost 60 years for the police service to get to that level.

A positive discrimination law - based on the approach adopted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to increase the number of Catholic officers - would prioritise the recruitment of suitably qualified Black and ethnic minority candidates over those who are White, for a limited period. As well as raising numbers in under-represented ethnic groups it could send an important signal - that the police service is changing and modernising. What a bold step that would be.


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