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Policing after the Pandemic



Mary Calam, Associate

Tuesday 10 March 2021


Mary Calam is a Crest Associate and former Director General for Crime, Policing and Fire in the Home Office during Theresa May's tenure as Home Secretary. Mary has a significant range of experience from across both public and private sector organisations as an external advisor and self-employed consultant at McKinsey & Company, board adviser to several companies and organisations, and trustee of the Police Foundation.


The police service is at a turning point. As the country starts cautiously on the road out of lockdown, chief constables and police and crime commissioners must decide whether policing should return to how it was before the pandemic - or if forces should embrace the changes they have made. But that opportunity will be short lived: life will soon settle into a new pattern, planned or unplanned, leaving little time for new ideas to gain traction before the next Comprehensive Spending Review. So what issues should policing leaders be thinking about now?

Using the learning from Covid

Police forces have risen to the challenge of the pandemic. Many used the dramatic reduction in demand during lockdown to launch proactive policing initiatives that had previously been squeezed out by the pressure of day-to-day calls for service. For example, police targeting of hotspots[1] led to a 16% year-on-year increase in recorded drugs offences in the 12 months to September 2020. That came as overall crimes logged by police dropped by 6%, mostly as a result of substantial falls during the April to June lockdown period, particularly in theft[2]. Across the country, police forces have shared learning, collated data and coordinated their operational responses under Operation Talla[3]. The way policing has coped with Covid-19 is the focus of research Crest is undertaking, alongside the Police Foundation.

Forces also rolled out remote working and significantly increased the use of digital tools; such changes would normally take months or years - but they happened in weeks[4] . Forces will have begun this from very different start points. In 2016, when I was Director General for Crime, Policing and Fire in the Home Office, I visited one force which was embracing mobile technology to “push” relevant information to patrol officers, laying the foundations for “digitally assisted decision making”, while patrol officers in another constabulary were struggling with devices that could take 40 minutes to log in.

Much has changed since then. Using their experience from the last year, forces should explore the long-term potential of remote and home working to deliver efficiency savings and improvements in effectiveness. They will want to test how far the new approaches developed in lockdown can be applied to front-line work, as well as to “back office” functions. Much of this learning from the pandemic is new territory for everyone; forces will need to monitor how a “hybrid workforce” of “present” and “remote” staff and officers affects well-being and, in the longer term, what the impact is on diversity, promotion and retention[5].

Building stability and resilience in a changing world

The police workforce, like other frontline service providers, has carried a heavy additional burden during the pandemic. Of respondents to the Police Federation annual welfare survey, 77% said they had experienced stress, anxiety or other mental health problems in the previous 12 months; of those affected, 20% said being on the frontline in the Covid crisis had had a negative impact[6]. Some forces have seen increased take up of welfare provision.

New government funding should take police officer numbers to more than 148,000 by March 2023[7] - an increase of around 21% since the low point of 2018[8], easing demand on this weary workforce. But the expansion in numbers also raises important questions, particularly when forces are exploring a more digitally-enabled operating model. Should new officers reinforce existing teams and ways of working, or is this an opportunity to use them differently? What might that look like? What skills do they need? And how should police forces best absorb such a large intake of inexperience? In three years’ time, more than 40% of police officers will have less than five years’ service[9].

These questions are particularly important, because the uplift in officer numbers comes at the same time as the roll-out of the Police Education Qualifications Framework. It’s a big change, though the standardisation of learning provision, together with a new national approach to professional development for existing police officers and staff, is still some way from completion[10]. Even before the pandemic, in February 2020, it was anticipated that ten forces would not introduce the new entry routes until after March 2021[11].

Seizing the potential of data

Senior police leaders are largely united in arguing that forces must exploit the potential of digitisation, data and analytics to deliver a better service to the public. But despite local initiatives, identifying how to achieve that at scale is much harder, due to different local contexts and priorities, pre-existing contracts and collaborations and national policing’s complex governance arrangements (see below). One example of this is the National Policing Digital Strategy[12] which has an ambitious and wide-ranging vision, but no clear roadmap so far for its implementation.

While there has been progress in individual forces and through the national digital policing portfolio, much more action is needed, quickly, to ensure that police capabilities do not fall further behind. For instance, the requirement for digital forensics has increased exponentially, with almost all crimes now having a digital footprint, far outstripping investment and available resources[13].

Police forces have begun to make better use of their own data to understand their own performance and the demands they face. The introduction of Force Management Statements by the Inspectorate of Constabulary, HMICFRS, has provided a broadly consistent framework for doing this, while methods such as Poliscope, used by Crest Advisory, are helping forces better understand demand and make more informed decisions on allocating resources. But there is significant further potential in this area [2].

Cutting the Gordian Knot of Governance

Effective policing is tightly connected to the local context. It is right that forces should address the priorities and concerns of the communities they serve. The day-to-day policing needs of Cumbria are very different to those of the West Midlands. Yet while crime has an impact on victims at a local level, the perpetrators may operate across national and international borders and are sometimes based abroad. This creates a challenge which policing has struggled with for many years: how best to organise and govern specialist capabilities at the national, regional and local level, so that all citizens can be assured of a consistent response, while managing finite resources. Forces have effective arrangements to support each other through mutual aid, particularly for public order policing, facilitated by the National Police Coordination Centre. But some law enforcement capabilities are too specialist and expensive to be available in every locality.

Police leaders must navigate a “spaghetti junction” of committees, boards and oversight processes for procurement and funding, especially in relation to technology and data. Some of this governance is owned by the Home Office, but a lot sits within policing itself. While working at the department, I had the privilege of attending meetings of the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Police Reform and Transformation Board (a mix of Chiefs and PCCs). It brought home to me the wide range of perspectives and viewpoints that must be taken into account, in a landscape which has few formal voting mechanisms. Police leaders seek to negotiate nationwide consensus, rather than deliver a majority vote, in order to reach any national level decision.

This complex governance has a knock-on effect. Suppliers can be deterred by the challenge of doing business in this environment; taxpayers may get less value for money as a result of multiple contracting for the same, or similar, services. And while there is great expertise, innovation and wisdom across forces, the College of Policing, the National Crime Agency, HMICFRS and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, police leaders lack a substantial, central policy function responsible for bringing together proposals for government and responses to government initiatives.

To simplify this governance maze and tap more deeply into the knowledge and insights available, police leaders need to pool resources and find a way, at a national level, to balance their differing local and political priorities. Operation Talla demonstrates that this sort of coordinated action can be achieved. But the “muscles” to work in this way need further development (although not additional committees).

The broad thrust of the Policing Vision 2025[14] remains valid. If police leaders could streamline governance and greater collaborative investment in developing the “how?” to achieve it, then swifter progress could be made. If not now, in the wake of the pandemic, then when?



[1] ONS crime statistics quarterly bulletin – September 2020

[2] ONS crime statistics quarterly bulletin – September 2020

[3] National operational policing response to Covid 19

[4] Police Foundation: Policing the Long Crisis: an Appraisal of the Police Response to Covid

[5] See for example, “Reimagining the Post Pandemic Workforce”, McKinsey & Company , July 2020

[6] Police Federation of England and Wales: Demand Capacity and Welfare Survey 2020 (January 2021)

[7] Police Officer Uplift – quarterly update (31 December 2020), Home Office, refers to police officers in the 43 Home Office police forces of England and Wales

[8] House of Commons research briefing 10 February 2021 (based on Home Office police workforce statistics)

[9] Jo Noakes, College of Policing, speaking at Police Foundation annual conference, 23 February 2021

[10] College of Policing, Policing Education Qualifications Framework: Learning to Date

[11] College of Policing, Policing Education Qualifications Framework: Learning to Date

[12] National Policing Digital Strategy 2020-2030, Police ICT Company and NPCC

[13] Police Foundation, Unleashing the Value of Digital Forensics, January 2021

[14] NPCC and APCC: Policing Vision 2025 (2016)


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