Fewer police stations are a problem but distrust between the public and the police is worse

By Frey Lindsay

In the last ten years 400 police stations around the country have closed, a Mail on Sunday investigation reported this week. This represents nearly half the stations in the entire UK.

While this may seem like a giant closure — the safety of a large section of the UK populace left unattended — it doesn’t tell the whole story of the effect wrought on the police services by austerity.

It’s not very surprising, really, because one of the main ways in which police forces have been trying to save money has been through estate consolidation,” Rick Muir, director of the independent Police Foundation think tank told Verdict.

Estate consolidation is essentially restructuring the assets and systems of the police services to streamline them. It is largely a cost-saving exercise.

According to the Institute for Government police spending fell from £13.1bn in 2009/10 to £10.9bn in 2015/16, a 17 percent decrease in real-terms.

In the same time period the number of police officers fell by 13.7 percent.

The report from which these numbers were drawn also notes applicants for police positions consistently outstripped the number of available places, indicating the reduction in police force numbers is due to budget cuts rather than a decrease in demand.

While trying to dispose of costly assets the police prioritise retaining officers in front line response roles, said Muir:

Given that most police spending is salaries (the National Audit Office puts it at 79 percent), if you’re going to protect those front line roles, pretty much to save money you have to go to back office consolidation, management de-layering and flogging off buildings.

That’s exactly what police forces around the country have been doing, as the Mail on Sunday’s investigation showed. This does not mean however the public’s ability to access police services have been cut by half.

“I think the public would be surprised how few police stations have even a front counter to actually meet the public,” said Muir.

According to Muir, the traditional view of a place for the public to go and report a crime does not reflect the reality of what these buildings are used for. Many are used for administration and processing and often don’t immediately appear as police stations from the outside.

Muir said he doesn’t think the public relish visiting the police station anyway.

Why would anyone want to got to a police station to report a crime? They’re horrible places by and large. If you go there at a particular time you’ll find lot’s of people who’ve been arrested. They’re not nice places for the public to go. So what we’ve found is that actually people would prefer to interact with the police in different ways.

A 2012 report from the thinktank Reform seems to support this idea.

Based on Freedom of information requests on police stations in London, Reform found over the hours the stations were open around 2 people per hour actually visited them.

Emilie Sundorph, researcher specialising in policing at Reform, says this shows an inherent inefficiency of resources. Partially, she says, this is attributable to the younger generation’s changing methods communication.

People live so much of their lives online now. It’s very important the police keep up to date. And that’s not only about solving crimes that are committed online. Efficiency and being a good police service becomes about what kind of police service you are online.

The Metropolitan police now have a dedicated Twitter account for reporting crimes — @MetCC.

Sundorph said the service is helping reveal crimes that otherwise would have gone unreported because of fear, apathy or embarrassment.

So some of the reported crimes they can see, they weren’t really told about before. It’s about creating new avenues and creating these spaces for people who wouldn’t necessarily walk into a station. They (victims of crimes) might not even pick up the phone but they are used to communicating in different ways.

There are of course a whole host of crimes that do require police presence. Sexual and violent assault, domestic abuse; these are not things you would hope to see solved with a tweet.

But incidents of this nature are not the kind where walking into a police station is of particular use. In these cases, said Muir, the emphasis has always been on the police coming to you first.

In serious calls of that nature you would call 999 and a police officer would come out and visit you at home or invite you down to the station. Or they would be on the scene.

Individual police forces have generally been given free rein to decide where austerity will bite into their budgets.

According to Muir the forces have tended to prioritise their response function, arguably the most critical service they provide. NHS ambulance service cuts are another story for another day.

The real problem: neighbourhood policing

As police budgets shrink, and administration and back-office roles are reduced, the burden is placed on front line police to pick up the shortfall.

In addition, the more time-heavy prevention and community engagement work at the core of neighbourhood policing suffers from the immediate needs of crime response.

According to a 2015 report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary:

Neighbourhood officers were found to be responding to calls for service and investigating crime, in addition to their regular prevention and community engagement work. Inevitably, in some cases, the latter suffered as a result.

Muir says what normally happens is police roles get merged.

What happened in the past was you had dedicated neighbourhood officers whose job was just to do neighbourhood policing; patrolling the streets, dealing with non-emergency issues, a lot of community engagement work, a lot of proactive work around particular areas where there might be hotspots of crime. They would also do some preventative work like get some CCTV put up or whatever it might be.

According to an ONS survey the percentage of people who said they saw high police foot patrol visibility in the UK fell from 39 percent in 2010/2011 to 22 percent in the year ending March 2017.

While perception alone can not be an accurate judge of how many police officers are on the street at any given time, it’s vital to maintaining trust between the force and public.

Community and neighbourhood policing is vital, said Muir, to nearly every aspect of a police force’s role. An active position in the community allows you to identify patterns of crime in the area, pick up intelligence from locals on bad actors and organised criminality and literally know the landscape of the area you patrol.

There is also a rule of law aspect to it.

Similar to the broken window theory (by which one broken window signals to people that crimes go unpunished in the area, thereby incentivising more), the perception that police are present in an area, working with the community and attuned to their needs helps to maintain law and order.

It’s sort of the opposite of the surveillance state.

According to the ONS:

Research suggests that positive perceptions of police trust and fairness promote engagement and compliance with the police. Also, if people do not believe that the local police are fair, the police may lose legitimacy and people’s connections with the police can be eroded.

The reaction in Dalston to the death of Rashan Charles, and the London riots of 2011, show what happens when this trust and legitimacy is degraded. People are less inclined to be cooperative with people they don’t know, don’t trust.

The public are, some would say justifiably, suspicious and evasive towards a force they don’t know and recognise as looking after the concerns of the community.

Things get worse when the public doesn’t feel the force are representative of the community, as Muir explained.

If you have a situation where you have an overwhelmingly white police force policing areas which are very diverse, the feeling the police are not “us” or are “other” in some way only increases and that undermines police legitimacy.

Efforts to redress this lack of diversity by recruiting from underrepresented communities were put on hold when austerity imposed a recruitment freeze.

“The issue is that it becomes policing by strangers,” said Muir, “which tends to feel very much like policing did in parts of the world ruled by the British empire – the colonial model of policing –  which is you have a load of outsiders coming in and repressing the local population, keeping people down.”

Police budgets are expected to remain flat over the next five years, with the government promising to keep them ring fenced from further cuts.

While this could mean pressure is taken off forces to cut further into their own budgets, it also means no extra spending for neighbourhood policing and diversity in recruitment, as police will still be forced to prioritise response services.

According to Muir, the primary goal of the police, keeping the peace and maintaining social order, will be impossible if trust between the police and public is allowed to continue its decline.

This is an effect much more damaging, if more diffuse, than the closure of outdated police stations.

To me it’s not really about buildings, it’s about relationships.