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A numbers game

A numbers game

“If you have a single force, you still wouldn’t get 17,234 but you will get considerably more [than having eight or three forces] because you will be spending less on infrastructure,” so said Strathclyde Police Chief Constable – now head of Police Scotland – Sir Stephen House in August 2011 on maintaining the SNP’s manifesto promise to deliver 1,000 extra police officers at 2007 levels.

Along with no compulsory redundancies and no outsourcing, keeping officer numbers above 17,234 was one of the non-negotiables on 1 April 2013. In the three reported quarters since, numbers have dipped successively from an all-time high of 17,496, on the eve of Police Scotland going live, to 17,258, their lowest since 2010. That trend is expected to reverse once figures for the first three months of 2014 are published.

However, the logic behind the political commitment is under a degree of strain more so than ever. It owes its roots, after all, to a bidding war played out at the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) conference in April 2007 where promises to recruit up to 1,500 extra officers were branded a “joke” by the then SPF chairman. Opposition politicians were initially critical of the SNP’s 1,000 extra officers pledge given the threshold had yet to be surpassed two years on from entering government.

Subsequently – and in the first year of the single service particularly – the focus has turned to the knock-on impact on civilian staff, 800 of whom have left in the last year, say unions; an exodus explained not only by the economies of scale the merger has provoked but by the fact police numbers cannot be touched.

The debate has gained traction in recent months. A very carefully crafted speech in December saw Scottish Police Authority chair, Vic Emery, declare unwavering support for the Government’s commitment to retain officer numbers, then, in the same breath, he described the figure as “arbitrary”. “I don’t think it is beyond us to come up with a more informed rationale for the size of police service we need in the future,” he said.

“He’s absolutely right [that] it’s an arbitrary target,” House told Holyrood. “On the day parliament passed the 1,000 extra cops, somebody said, how many have you got and we said, 16,234 and they said, now it’s 17,234. That’s about as arbitrary as you get.”
On the face of it, nonetheless, the statistics point to a largely good-news story. On all aspects of confidence in the police measured by the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey, changes between 2008-09 and 2012-13 have been positive, while almost three-quarters of adults now feel ‘very’ or ‘fairly safe’ walking alone in their neighbourhood after dark, an increase of 6 per cent over the four-year period.

That is not solely down to police visibility, of course. A longitudinal study to be published this summer by GoWell – a ten-year research programme investigating changes in the health and wellbeing of those affected by regeneration throughout parts of Glasgow – will show perceptions of policing services, though a factor, is not the most significant when it comes to influencing people’s feelings of safety in their community at night compared, for example, to familiarity and trust in others in the local vicinity. Over half of adults living in the 15 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland still deem the police presence in their local area to be insufficient.

Ministers continue to hold up a 39-year low in recorded crime as a marker of success, though drawing a link between this and police numbers risks oversimplifying what is a much more complicated picture. “There are multiple reasons why crime rates are falling – and they’re not just falling in Scotland, they’re falling in other countries as well,” says Scottish Institute for Policing Research (SIPR) director, Professor Nick Fyfe. “Trying to draw a direct causal link between the number of police officers and crime rates, I think it’s difficult to make that claim because there are so many other factors that influence levels of crime, whether that is to do with the demographic profile of the population or with changes in the nature of the way in which property and other things are protected. There are all sorts of different reasons why crime rates might come down.”

The increase in officers has ensured police have remained on top of this decrease, though, says SPF chairman Brian Docherty. For rank-and-file members, that commitment has taken a degree of pressure off, though Docherty acknowledges long-term sustainability is problematic. “There are serious implications, obviously with the budget cuts that are going to have to be made and with the fact that we know the amount of money that is spent out [of] the policing budget on salary, it is going to be very hard to maintain those numbers.

“But I do not want to see any attack on officer numbers unless there is a proven business case that justifies why these numbers need to be looked at. That’s not for me to decide. I will continue to say that I believe the numbers at the levels they’re at are the right numbers just now because had it been any less, those officers doing the job just now, there would have been a major hit on them to carry on.”

Ahead of his intervention, Emery had already held discussions with the SIPR, the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) as well as with former Labour MSP and Deputy Minister for Social Justice, Des McNulty, who is now employed by the University of Glasgow. Holyrood understands a review is imminent but will not start until next month at the earliest when a new director of strategy and performance starts at the SPA. The review’s timeframe and publication date, therefore, have not been given – in many ways, it is insignificant given the Cabinet Secretary remains resolute in seeing the manifesto pledge through to 2016 – though Emery said in mid-January that the SPA would look to build upon initial discussions with senior academics “over the next 12-18 months”.

The task is not a simple one, however. “Trying to predict how many police officers you need, which is the exercise that I believe SPA and Police Scotland are trying to develop, is a guessing game, really,” says Professor Kenneth Scott, Honorary Professor of Police Studies at the University of the West of Scotland, who was involved in the provision of higher education for police officers for more than four decades. Based on latest figures, Scotland straddles the middle ground in terms of police officers per 100,000 population across EU member states. The numbers trail the likes of Spain, Portugal and much of Eastern Europe, albeit they are significantly higher than our North-Sea neighbours, including the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. Within the UK, the ratio is second only to Northern Ireland.

Such comparisons are rather crude, though Fyfe does recommend taking evidence from the likes of Sweden as well as the Dutch, who have embarked on a national service too. The SIPR is currently working with international colleagues to compare the process of implementation with these two countries.

“There is a risk that some of the progress that has been made in terms of moving towards the right balance of skills, roles and responsibilities is sort of hindered by this focus on just police officer numbers,” says Fyfe. “What we need to do, in a sense, is stand back from that and think about what are the key roles and responsibilities and what kind of skills do we need for people to carry out those functions. There is a danger that by just focusing on police officer numbers, we lose sight of all these other activities.

“It often comes down to the way in which this debate is portrayed that people talk about the frontline of policing as though that only involved physical patrolling officers. That frontline is supported by a huge number of other people, both other officers and civilian staff, who are as crucial to the delivery of policing as the people that you see on the street.”

A case in point is the Priority Crime Unit (PCU), which was introduced as a pilot in the Central Scotland Falkirk Area Command six years ago before being rolled out across the entire legacy force area. Its efforts were modelled on a workforce modernisation process that had been undertaken in England and Wales and saw non-police staff undertake some of the more time-consuming tasks of frontline police investigations, freeing up officers for higher-profile, more focused activities for which there was a local demand. In effect, crimes were disaggregated from start to finish, allowing tasks such as reviewing CCTV footage and interviewing witnesses to be shared.

“What we did learn was that there are many aspects of policing activity which don’t necessarily have to be undertaken by sworn officers and it’s always been the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents’ view that the workforce in a police service, whether that is a legacy local police service or a national service, needs to strike the right balance between police officers and non-police officers and that we should be striving to have the right task done by the right person with the right skills at the right cost,” says Superintendent Gavin Buist, ASPS eastern district chair, who was an area commander, workforce development manager and, latterly, head of corporate management at the legacy force.

It is a business model that “proved its worth”, says Buist, insofar as detection rates went up in high volume crime categories and public satisfaction with the way in which investigations were conducted also improved. It has since been disbanded with the number of civilian investigators steadily declining as a result, says Police Scotland, of decreased demand and an increased number of police officers. Those staff left have been redeployed within divisional CID teams. “It would be nice to think that at some point in the future we can revisit some of that thinking [behind the unit],” adds Buist.

For the moment, though, control rooms are the key bone of contention. Changes, not just in the number of control rooms but the balance between police officers and civilian staff within them, have angered unions, prompting threats of industrial action. Unison and Police Scotland have progressed talks, Holyrood understands, and a ballot of members remains suspended, subject to a meeting of the SPA’s human resources committee in the coming days.

Under pre-existing arrangements, ratios within control rooms ranged from 11 per cent police officers to 89 support staff in Dundee, through to 57 per cent police officers to 43 per cent support staff in Stirling. Workforce rebalancing outlined earlier this year will see a further 55 officers put into control rooms and an equivalent drop in police staff with the single force keen on a 40/60 split. “There is a requirement for police officers [to be] there for directional purposes, etc, but the split should never be anywhere near to 50/50,” says Unison regional officer, Gerry Crawley. “It will make the cost of operating the new force control centres across the country far more expensive if you’ve got police officers in.”

The service is currently looking at what the balance ought to be within custody areas also. More broadly, it lends itself to a much wider debate around the frequency of backfilling. There is no tactic to backfill – filling backroom jobs with serving officers – Police Scotland has maintained. It happens on a daily basis, though it is an understandable practice given that it’s difficult to predict staff shortages due to illness, for example. Holyrood has been told the service is reaching a point where “very soon” police officers will be sitting behind desks doing jobs that police staff ought to be doing, however. As Scott points out, any way out of a commitment to additional officers will require a “really good story” as to why government seeks to change it. As such, there may be some “leverage”, he says, in the argument that a cut in overall officer numbers could mean more on the beat because more support staff – who cost much less to employ – could be retained.

As for a debate on officer numbers, resolving what the magic number should be is some way off. “The fundamental issue of how many cops we need is not as easy as ‘what do you think the right number is?’” said House. He suggests it should be based on a “coalesced view” of Police Scotland, SPA, and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICS). “I could turn round and say, well, actually, I think it should be 20,000 and for 20,000, I can give you the following extra services and I can guarantee this level of performance,” he added. “I don’t think the budget is there to support 20,000 cops. Is it there to support 17,234 or do we actually have to cut because there isn’t the money there? We’ll have to wait and see what the answer to that is.”

Read the most recent article written by Alan Robertson - Time for Michael Matheson to live up to his motto of ‘smart on crime’

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