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Seven challenges for policing
2nd paper in a series from the Police Foundation looks at the difficulties facing police forces in setting priorities in the context of ever-increasing demand.

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Prioritisation in a changing world

Confronted with shrinking budgets, a wide and growing remit, and the withdrawal of Whitehall from setting priorities and targets, Police and Crime Commissioners and police forces have to decide which aspects of the police role are most important and where to prioritise their resources. And they must do so in the context of changing crime, communities and social values, while being subject to many forms of accountability, scrutiny and pressure.

Last week (14 September 2016) the Police Foundation published the second of a series of five papers entitled “Police effectiveness in a changing world” which sets out the Think Tank’s view on the seven key challenges facing modern policing. The series is based on a four year action research project the Police Foundation undertook with police services in Luton and SLough between 2011-2015. [You can read my summary of the first of these papers which looked at how police forces need to adopt an “informed proactive” response to crime here.]


I briefly summarise the seven challenges below:

Challenge 1: The police are subject to complex and changing governance arrangements that make it difficult to focus on a clearly defined smaller number of proactive priorities

The Police Foundation sets out the confusion which comes from the five levels of priority setting that concern the 43 police forces in England and Wales:

  1. The government’s Strategic Policing Requirement.
  2. The Police Commissioner’s Police and Crime Plan.
  3. Under the National Intelligence Model, police forces are required to publish a Control Strategy which is refreshed every six months.
  4. At a more local level Community Safety Partnerships (of which there may be several within every police force area) must publish a Strategic
    Assessment every year.
  5. Finally, most local policing areas also set priorities at a ward or neighbourhood level.

Challenge 2: The police role is very broadly defined and public expectations of that role have broadened further as a result of social change

This challenge relates to the fact that 80% of calls to the police are not crime-related and the difficulty faced by police forces in managing expectations on how much longer they can continue to try to prop up failing other public services around issues such as mental health, people missing from children’s and care homes, and even supplementing the ambulance service.

Challenge 3: Democratic accountability implies an emphasis on the priorities of the majority and the public understanding of the police role, which may ignore more hidden and less frequent – but potentially more impactful – harms

This challenge relates to the tension between media and the public having expectations of a visible police presence which may be a very ineffective use of police resources.

Challenge 4: Complex interdependencies exist within police operating models that make decisions about core and discretionary functions highly problematic

This challenge is phrased in particularly jargonistic terms and requires some translation. Essentially, it refers to the fact that the personnel within many police forces has become unbalanced following several years of funding cuts. Owing to he fact that police officers cannot be made redundant, there have been disproportionate cuts in operational support roles such as intelligence analysis and project management that have the potential to undermine effectiveness in ‘core’ functions such as crime investigation and crime prevention.

Challenge 5: Deciding how to define the social issues of crime and public safety to be considered when prioritising is a ‘wicked problem’ that cannot be satisfactorily resolved

This challenge is again concerned with the way that the police are often pressured to be the lead agencies responding to issues where crime is merely a symptom of a social problem and where the solution is more likely to be led by another agency or at least to be a genuine multi-agency issue.

Challenge 6: It is not possible to satisfactorily weigh the importance of poorly understood hidden harms against those that are more visible

This challenge refers to a move within several police areas to move away from simply treating all crimes as equally important towards a harm-based approach (see this post about the Cambridge Harm Index). Although the Police Foundation broadly welcomes this approach, it points out the difficulties in not only defining a harm-based approach but communicating the justice in such an approach to local politicians, media and communities.

Challenge 7: The immature evidence base about the nature and extent of harm, ‘what works’ to reduce it, and cost effectiveness, limits the potential for empirical analysis to guide prioritisation

The Police Foundation’s final challenge concerns the limited evidence base on which to make decisions on local priorities; we just don’t have a body of robust research about what approaches are most effective (and most cost-effective) in reducing crime and associated harms.


The Police Foundation sets out the challenge facing police forces very clearly in its conclusion:

As the only generalist 24/7 emergency service, policing will always face constant pressures: to respond to emergencies, to prevent crime and maintain order, to secure justice, to reassure, and to seek out and address harms that affect the most vulnerable in society. But the police service cannot do everything to the same degree, and as such it must decide – with others where appropriate – what its priorities are. The changing world makes that more difficult but also more important.

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