Let’s deal with the title question straight away.
Actually, I don’t think it is time for a Royal Commission on policing in this country. I don’t think it’s time for anything that has the potential to be drawn out, bureaucratic and enormously expensive.
But I do think there is an urgent need for a proper, grown up, joined up, honest, objective and constructive conversation about policing in this country.
Take a glance at the current headlines:
Crime is up
The latest ONS crime figures point to an increase in overall crime of more than 175,000 offences. Of particular concern has to be the 18% increase in violent crime and the 14% increase in sexual offences.
And behind each number, there is a person – amongst them some of the most vulnerable people in society.
A couple of weeks ago, we were talking about knife crime. Last week we are talking about acid attacks. Both weeks we’ve been talking about mopeds. This week it may well be something else.
And we ask and expect the police to deal with it all.
Risk is up
The terrorist attacks of recent months have brought home, with absolute clarity, the deadly threat faced by police officers.
Each one of them is an explicit target.
And they stood at the funeral of PC Keith Palmer GM.
Demand is up
It’s not just crime.
Roads Policing. Mental Health. Missing Persons.
And so it goes on.
All too often, policing finds itself as the agency of last resort, picking up the pieces that others have left behind.
Police Officer numbers are down
Police Federation figures show that there are currently just over 123,000 police officers in England Wales – more than 20,500 fewer than in 2010. Latest news reports suggest that the number of police officers in England & Wales is actually at its lowest level since 1985.
Whilst it might be problematic to argue particular cause and effect, it’s not difficult to make a connection.
The strain placed on serving officers is up
In the last five years, there has been a 47% rise in the number of police officers taking time off work for stress, anxiety, depression and PTSD.
I’m one of them.
And I know more good people in policing operating under significantly more strain than at any previous point in the last 25 years.
Police Chiefs are speaking out
Senior officers in a number of forces have been speaking out in recent weeks – articulating deeply held concerns about the range of extraordinary challenges facing policing in this country.
Gavin Thomas, President of the Police Superintendents Association (and a decent, measured, thoughtful man) had this to say in a recent blog:
‘I have now heard too many of my colleagues leading critical commands and services state that the current situation is not sustainable.’
We need to listen to the voices of those who care about policing – about its past, its present and its future. When our best people, at every level, are telling us that all is not well, we need to make absolutely sure we’re paying attention.
Change has been relentless
Change has been a constant in policing for a long time, but the intensity of the last 5-10 years – driven partly by austerity and partly by ideology – has been of an entirely different order.
And, in the view of a great many frontline officers and staff, there has been too much, too quickly and not all of it for the better.
These are the most challenging times for policing in this country since the end of the Second World War. That’s not exaggeration for effect – it’s a simple statement of fact.
And so we need that proper conversation:
- What do we – as a society – want the police to be?
- What do we – as a society – want the police to do?
- What should their time and effort and resources be spent on – recognising that everything can’t be a priority and that doing more of one thing means, inevitably, doing less of another?
- Given the range of demands and threats they now face, how many frontline police officers do we actually need?
- How much should they be paid? Or, to put it another way, how much are they worth?
- How much are we prepared to invest in the right equipment and training for them?
- Where do the responsibilities of the police end and those of others agencies begin?
- Given the nature of policing – in particular the strain and trauma faced routinely by officers and staff – what level of support should they be entitled to expect when the job takes its toll?
Good policing is not of incidental significance to society. It is absolutely fundamental to the way in which we live our daily lives.
So we need proper answers to the difficult questions being posed: well-thought-through, intelligent, considered answers – free from misunderstanding, mischief and unspoken agendas. And we need to put people – those we serve and those we serve alongside – at the very heart of every single thing we do.
The British Police Service is the finest in the world.
I desperately want it to stay that way.