When I joined the job there were enough of us on a response team for my sergeant/s to do the following:
- Assign 2-3 of us to deal with handover prisoners at the start of the shift.
- Assign 1-2 of us to catch up with enquiries from the day/week before.
- Assign 2 of us to plainclothes patrol in crime hotspots.
- Have a couple of us mentoring/tutoring new PCs.
- Make sure a double-crewed unit attended every violent incident, with another double-crewed car floating nearby.
- Rarely, if ever, allow us to transport prisoners single-crewed.
The setup was simple: if a job was called in by a member of the public and my team was on duty, one of us would attend it. My sergeant would oversee what we were doing, and my inspector would probably have a chat to me about a job or an incident every other week or so - and crew up with one of us to attend incidents every day. We had quite a bit of discretion, and a lot of low-level crimes were probably never solved that could have been. Most of our prisoners were charged by the custody sergeant, but a lot of the cases failed at court due to the total lack of specialism of the officers dealing.
In the last decade, partly driven by government targets and performance culture, partly by high profile disasters and cock-ups involving the police, things have changed. Departments have been invented to take on vast amounts of what response teams did, for example:
- There is a prisoner reception team to deal with prisoners.
- There are civilian statement-takers to do our enquiries, and a department to prepare court files.
- The only officers in plainclothes are on special operations and come from departments of detectives investigating auto-crime, burglary, robbery, or trained surveillance units.
- New PCs are mentored in a special unit where they are protected from anything too nasty.
- Back-up comes in the form of neighbourhood officers (if help is needed between 8am-midnight), or force roamers - traffic, dogs, and armed units that might possibly hopefully be where you need them, when you need them.
- Officers transport prisoners single-crewed constantly, using caged vans to make it slightly safer, because they get bored of waiting at the roadside for assistance that never comes.
The officers to staff the squads and units have all come from response, so our numbers are a third what they used to be and safe minimum staffing levels have been hacked down with no scientific or methodical risk assessment as to whether this is actually safe. One inspector now covers multiple stations, which means he can't crew up with officers on a regular basis and has no day-to-day supervision of the team. Custody has become a tangled mess, with at least three decision-makers in every case disposal, if it's hate crime or domestic this goes up to five. Far more people are arrested to try and meet targets for auto-crime and assault detections. Fewer prisoners are charged due to high evidential standards, but the cases are better quality and many succeed at court.
All of this means we are a force with the ability to churn through vast numbers of investigations. It is expected that every single job attended will be pursued to the nth degree, however slim or remote the chance of a positive result. If performance and risk aversion are all you care about, we are a machine.
Well performance and risk aversion are expensive, and the money has run out. Suddenly discretion is back and front-line response is being lauded as the only "real" policing. Squads and units, civilians and specialists, are all fair game for cuts. And when they go, the number of staff that return to front-line policing will be 10% of that which left it: partly because they are staffed by people who couldn't wait to get away from front-line policing and will do everything in their power to avoid going back, and partly because the specialist nature of the squads meant they were functioning on a tenth the staff, so natural wastage has not been replaced. Unfortunately, nobody has told the senior management team that detections don't matter any more, or that the policing pledge has gone. And so we are still expected to produce better and better performance.
We have gone full circle, and arrived back where we started with half the manpower. As a sergeant now, I am faced with dilemma after dilemma, and no one upstairs is giving the answers I need:
- I will have handover prisoners and bails to deal with, but assigning the 2-3 officers needed will deplete my shift by a third. So one officer will have to cope, and he will have three months service and will never have dealt with a prisoner on his own before.
- I won't be able to spare 1-2 officers to catch up on their enquiries, as they'll be needed to pick up new ones.
- My officers won't be in plainclothes, as I need them all on uniform response. No departments will be either, so who will be out turning over drug-dealers, monitoring prostitution, or catching burglars in the act?
- I will have to tutor new PCs with staff still in their probation themselves.
- Every officer will have to be single-crewed to maximise our numbers, which means two cars attending every violent job, with two more for backup. Force roamers won't be able to help as they'll be spread over a wider and wider area, and we can't use caged vehicles for safe single-crewed prisoner transport as vans are expensive and are gradually being phased out.
I hope some of this is comprehensible to people who aren't in the police, because it isn't to those who are. The message is, do ten times the work with no extra staff, and no helpful suggestions how. And somehow, front-line services will not be affected by these cuts.
On the plus side, we are now being forced to cut much of the bureaucracy and target-chasing that has hamstrung the police for the last decade. Somehow it appears we can do without these vital and cherished performance drives and risk policies after all.
On the downside, being a police officer on the front-line at the moment is a bleaker and bleaker prospect. Just how exactly I am going to motivate my team when I brief them tomorrow I have no idea.
'Diary of an On-Call Girl' is available in some bookstores and online.