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Cop Shopping
Nathan Davies

According to the Labour party line posted on their own web-site, “reducing crime and disorder will always be a top priority”, the question at the moment is, is it theirs? If you believe the figures released on the 23rd April this year, detailing a 76.9% increase in police recruitment over the last twelve months alone, then the answer is probably ‘yes’.

For the police and the public alike, that affirmation isn’t wholly unqualified. In the same breath as upholding this increase as a success, Home Secretary Jack Straw was also forced to admit that overall police numbers are still lower now than they were when the current government took office in 1997. When all is said and done, it is by these figures, the total number of officers on the beat, that we must judge the success of this government and their priorities. How can they say that reducing crime and disorder is one of their top priorities if they let the let officer numbers continue to fall throughout the first three years of their administration? Well, the argument is that it is election time again and it’s now time to look to the future rather than the past.

Unfortunately, looking at their future policies isn’t much better as most of what Labour is proposing for law enforcement is tied up in a new ten year plan (to run alongside one for education) that will parallel the existing ones for health and transport. It is also rumoured to concentrate on areas other than the issue of trained manpower, no doubt because they feel that they adequately addressed it in September 1999 with the institution of a national Crime Fighting Fund for England and Wales. It is this fund that has paid for up to 40% of this years new recruits, a total of 2,800 men and women. However, even this has room for significant improvement as the fund was designed to put 9,000 recruits through training in addition to the numbers that regional forces have planned to recruit and even then it has been projected to take a minimum of three years. According to Police Federation statistics, while this is definitely a step in the right direction, it may not be enough. At the start of the seven year slump continued under Labour, the Audit Commission found that only 5% of officers were ever on the beat at any one time; numbers have fallen since then and, as the Home Secretary admitted, have not yet climbed back to that level. Considering that police presence is always a big issue at election time (and always one of their biggest criticisms), what are the various parties proposing to do about it?

As part of the aforementioned 10-year plan, Labour is planning to institute several organisational reforms within the regional police forces. While they do not directly affect the total number of officers employed, the government is hoping that it will be a cost-effective way of freeing those available from the constraints of paperwork and redirecting others into specialised areas. The most extreme example of the latter method is the idea of creating a separate organisation that will deal specifically with traffic crime, an idea that the Police Federation is staunchly opposed to on grounds of cost and overlapping police work.

Another policy that the government has committed itself to that the Police Federation would rather see replaced is that of ‘two-tier policing’. Typified by the piloted ‘neighbourhood warden’ scheme, in which empowered uniformed police substitutes take on the police patrol routes in some residential and commercial areas, the Federation claim that it can confuse the public and may cause conflicts of interest should actual police officers need to get involved. The main concern is that, despite being in the best position to offer improvements to the police, the current government has fallen into the trap of thinking that streamlining the role of the average officer is the way to go.

The Conservatives have, at least in principle, acknowledged this and have even made rumblings about broadening the role of the police within the community. However, the only solid policy they have in regards to improving the situation is to match Labours prospective 9,000 new recruits (which means that if they won the election they would leave the Crime Fighting Fund in place and perhaps suggests, as certain government supporters have claimed, that they have thought very little about police funding as a whole). On the other hand they do have Anne Widecombe (the rumblings I mentioned earlier) who is keen to take an active stance on crime, but she may have weakened her position by recently conducting an illegal sit-in protest during a closed session of parliament.

Like the Tories, the Liberal Democrats have yet to propose anything more than an increase in the recruitment of new police officers (an extra 6,000 according to their pre-election manifesto; but is this on top of those with Crime Fighting Fund sponsorship?). However, they may have the popular edge in law enforcement, having made a considerable, though late, contribution to a recent crime bill.

Overall, Labour is offering the most on the issues of crime and law enforcement, with comprehensive plans on introducing new technology (such as the improved national DNA database and a mobile, fully automated fingerprint identification system), as well as reforms allowing police to keep a record of lawfully taken fingerprints and DNA profiles, including those taken from people who are not convicted. New powers have also been promised to deal with street violence and anti-social behaviour, including the right to close down rowdy pubs and clubs, and a new initiative for an increased police presence in rural communities is ready for implementation. And that’s barely half of it. However, like in the case of recruitment funding and reorganisation it is not necessarily what the police themselves want.

According to the Police Federation what the police want, and in many cases need, in addition to more manpower, new technology and revised legislation are updated training programmes. They say that it is all very well for the government, and anyone else for that matter, to change the way the system works (take, for example, the Crime and Disorder Act), but there has to be periods of adjustment and a training rotation. This is one of the reasons why the Federation claims that reorganising the police force in regard to traffic and second tier policies will not solve the low percentage of patrolling officers, as there will always be a number of them receiving instruction on topics as varied as race relations, digital analysis and firearms training. What they really want is for regional police forces to have the numbers they need of well trained, adaptable officers who are in touch with the community. Surely this is what we all want, especially the government, so why don’t they listen to the Police Federation and the bobbies on the beat rather than blindly trying to appeal to them with positive, but ultimately worthless statistics, and spend a few more pence in every government pound on law and order.

© Nathan Davies 2001

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