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The state of policing (April 2017)
Sir Tom Winsor's annual assessment of police performance shows a service under strain, seeking to withdraw from mental health and other non-crime work.

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The police need to focus on crime

Last week (20 April 2017), Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published its annual assessment of policing in England Wales. The report contains the Chief Inspector’s (Sir Tom Winsor) assessment of the efficiency and effectiveness of policing in England and Wales in respect of the inspection year 2016.

This reporting period has seen the second complete cycle of PEEL (police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy) inspections, which consider the effectiveness and efficiency of police forces, and assess the legitimacy of how they discharge their obligations (that is, how they behave and treat people).

These inspections provide a comprehensive analysis of the way in which each police force in England and Wales has performed.

The report

The report is in three parts.

Part 1

This section gives a wide-ranging overview of the state of policing in England and Wales, which builds on the inspection programme and takes into account the results of the previous two years’ annual assessments. The themes are applicable to the police service as a whole, and to every police force in England and Wales.

Part 2

This section provides an overview of the findings from all the HMIC inspections conducted this year:

  • PEEL inspections.
  • A substantial programme of specialist inspections.
  • Those conducted with other criminal justice inspectorates.
  • Inspections of the National Crime Agency, other national police forces and some of the forces which police the British Overseas Territories.

Part 3

This sets out the full list of HMIC inspections and other work.

Main findings

The Chief Inspector highlighted the “material pressures on police forces in England and Wales, which put the service under strain”, arguing that the principal pressures are as a result of:

  • the failures of other public services, especially in respect of children’s and adolescent mental health, too often making the police the service of first resort, long after the chances of effective prevention have been lost;
  • the modern tsunami of online fraud;
  • increased police awareness of crimes against vulnerable people, including the elderly and the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, requiring the devotion of higher specialist police resources; and
  • the fragmented state of police information and communications technology.

The report highlights that 18 forces require improvement in at least one of HMIC’s principal inspection themes of effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy.

When considering the daily pressures to which the police are subject, Sir Thomas warned against the insidious creep of expecting police forces to be able to deal with the increasing demand caused by a shortage in mental health provision:

The police are considered to be the service of last resort. In some areas, particularly where people with mental health problems need urgent help, the police are increasingly being used as the service of first resort. This is wrong.

The provision of mental healthcare has reached such a state of severity that police are often being used to fill the gaps that other agencies cannot. This is an unacceptable drain on police resources, and it is a profoundly improper way to treat vulnerable people who need care and help.

The obligation of the police is to prevent crime. This is not only because this makes society safer – both in reality and in perception – but also because it is far cheaper to prevent a crime than it is to investigate and arrest the offender after the event. The same is true of mental ill-health, which is not a crime. It is an old adage that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, and this is particularly true when the cure fails and an emergency intervention is required to protect the safety of an individual in distress and, often, people nearby. By the time depression or some other mental disorder has been allowed to advance to the point that someone is contemplating suicide, or engaging in very hazardous behaviour, many opportunities to intervene will have been missed by many organisations. When that intervention takes place on a motorway bridge or railway line, or when someone is holding a weapon in a state of high distress, the expense to all concerned is far higher than it should be. The principal sufferer is the person who is ill, especially when it is realised that his or her suffering could have been much less or even avoided altogether.

Police lagging behind on technology

Whilst there are examples of excellence found in the HMIC inspections over the last year, police leaders need to focus more on what matters most, by planning properly for the future, by ensuring that their officers and staff are properly trained, supported and equipped, and by improving the pace of improvement significantly.

The report says that the police are particularly far behind many other organisations in the way they use technology. Used well, modern technology should give the police an unprecedented ability to exchange, retrieve and analyse intelligence. The Chief Inspector summed up:

The changing nature of crime, and the increasing opportunities to exploit the vulnerability of children and the elderly in particular, creates a greatly intensified need for police leaders to improve their efficiency and effectiveness to prevent crime and deal with offences.

In too many cases, police leaders are still too sluggish in ensuring their plans to meet new demands are sound, particularly in the need to ensure the complete interoperability of law enforcement information and communications systems.

For too long, a culture of insularity, isolationism and protectionism has prevented chief officers from making the most effective use of the technology available to them. The blinkers have to come off.


This year, HMIC has been able to compare year-on-year performance of each police force, and therefore assess the direction of each force and the police service as a whole. Forces are assessed against three broad categories: effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy. Overall, in comparison with 2015:

  • in relation to effectiveness, 10 police forces improved, 26 stayed the same and seven forces declined;
  • in relation to efficiency, six forces improved, 30 stayed the same and seven forces declined; and
  • in relation to legitimacy, four forces improved, 36 stayed the same and three forces declined.

HMIC makes it clear that their judgments on the efficiency and effectiveness of the police are predominantly about how well the police use their money and other resources, not about how much funding forces have at their disposal.

However, it seems likely that the substantial cuts in policing resources since 2010 have exacerbated many of the problems identified in this annual assessment. More than this, the substantial cuts in other public services have exposed just how much non-crime work the police have always done.


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