Saturday, 9 April 2011

A policeman's lot is not a happy one

I wrote this after reading this story about how thin the 'thin blue line' is.

Please bear in mind that policing is a 24/7 operation and the very nature of a 3-shift system knocks the theoretical availability for any kind of duty down to 33.3% immediately. There are 168 hours in a week but an officer can only be expected to work for about 40 hours like anyone else. This immediately brings it down to 24%.  It is not yet possible to have robocops who don't require rest and sleep.  It is unfair when quoting 'only 10% of officers available for duty' not to qualify this important aspect. When expressed as 'only 10%' there seems to be the underlying suggestion that it should be as close to 100% as possible.  A more realistic measurement would be the percentage of staff available from those currently on shift rather than the entire workforce, 76% of which are off duty at that moment in time.

The recent 24 hour tweets of all reported incidents by Greater Manchester Police demonstrated the very wide variety of issues the modern police service are expected to deal with in a typical day, all of which require front line staff's attention.  Policing in the 21st century is a very complex occupation and there are hundreds of very valid reasons why an officer can't join the 'front line' for the whole of a typical shift.

There is red tape and burocracy involved but it isn't all imposed by the police service.  Much is dictated by other public services and the criminal justice system. In my experience, it has always been the police service who has managed to take the most economical and sensible approach to minimising as far as possible the burden of paperwork placed upon it.

We seem to have become obsessed with visibility in recent years and the stock phrase 'would be nice to see more bobbies on the beat' has become the standard answer for most public surveys. Whereas doctors and nurses are confined to very specific locations (i.e. hospitals), police officers are spreading themselves across our entire community.  They could be in court, in someone's house, sitting next to you on the bus working covertly on a drugs operation or in any number of public places but the chances of you actually bumping into them is remote.  This is no fault of the police, it is just a fact of life.  We have to trust the police management teams to deploy the staff they have available to them efficiently and effectively. This doesn't just include crime as it happens but also the follow-up investigations that can continue for months and years after the initial report.

So reassuring people by having officers patrolling up and down in town centres isn't placing officers where they are needed, it is placing them where the public surveys tell them to be. The chances of them being able to satisfy a visibility role and catching criminals at the same time is nigh on impossible.

The figures broken down

Of 6,600 Essex Police staff, 3,575 are officers and 404 are PCSOs. 24% of the combined total is 955 officers.  858 officers and 97 PCSOs.

There are 143 neighbourhood policing teams in Essex Police which averages 6 officers and 1 PCSO per team. However, that is just the theory.  In practice, the neighbourhood policing teams do not comprise 100% of available resources and the majority of staff will be on response teams, reacting to emergency calls as they come in. There are increasing numbers of public meetings to attend too.  Each neighbourhood is required to hold Neighbourhood Action Panel meetings every six weeks.  Thats 1,240 meetings a year even before other meetings are taken into consideration.  Each meeting lasts about 2 hours so that is 2,480 hours per year taken up with meetings.

We have an extensive network of roads and motorways in Essex which require road policing officers patrolling in cars.  We have the longest coastline of any police service in the UK which requires a specialist team of officers working from boats.  There are a host of specialist support services including scenes of crime, air, firearms, dog and horse support, financial investigation specialists, immigration and border patrols which of course includes Stansted Airport. The list of course goes on and the expertise and specialisms get more complex.

Sir Robert Peel wrote the nine points of policing in 1829 and they still hold true to this day.  We have lost sight recently of point 5.  We can no long be effective simply by doing exactly what we are told is important by the public.  If we did that, we would ignore burglary, violent crime, terrorism, murder, rape and most serious criminal activity.  We would however have no dog poo on the streets, no children would be allowed outside at any time of the day or night and there would be 4,000 parking attendents patrolling the streets, ensuring nobody ever parks irresponsibly again.

Sir Robert Peel's Nine Points of Policing (1829)

  1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
  2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
  3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
  5. Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
  6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
  7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence
  8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
  9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.
The point is that policing is a complex job requiring more than a visible presence on the streets.  We will look after you - we know what we're going - we've been doing this since 1840 - for 170 years. Trust us.

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