What is ‘front-line’ policing?

Keith Vaz
Image by Andrew Mason

Much of the recent political debate about cuts in police numbers revolve around the government stance that is; “cuts need not impact on the policing front-line” however, where does that ‘front-line’ actually start and end?

The same question is being debated at the Linkedin ‘Police Debate’ forum where the question is, “what is the definition of front-line?” Some two weeks ago I said in that debate; “Perfect definition’? You must be having a laugh! I would suspect that if anyone did proffer a definitive (all be it allusive) definition, the basis would differ dependent upon the rank, task/role and experience of the author. A good starting point for developing any front-line definition might be; those roles that have a direct and daily contact with individuals in the community.”

Because of budget constraint, as a result of the austerity measures, there has never been a greater need than now to; clearly and correctly define the term ‘front-line’ once and for all. The service needs it to formulate delivery, the politicians need it to answer to the public and most importantly, the public need it to gain a more realistic and better understanding of their expectations. Continuing in that vein, the Police Federation commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out a public opinion survey, in an attempt to find out what we the public actually want from our police service (see results here). Somewhat late in the process, the Home Affairs Select Committee is also now asking the very same ‘front-line’ question (see here).

Like many other things in the public sector, it appears leaders and politicians have got things arse about face as usual. For years there has been a propensity to implement a ‘solution’ before the ‘problem’ is fully understood or defined. Take as an example the vast amounts of public money expended on IT systems over the years; without first fully and correctly defining what task they are actually required to perform.

This is usually (and too often) caused by knee-jerk reactions to (often media induced) public and political opinion. That and the influence of local/national political agenda, or the self-interests of police and political leadership. The now famous Inspector Gadget, who usually has a firm grasp on all things ‘operational’, has offered some guidance and direction on the ‘front-line’ question…

POLICE INSPECTOR BLOG: There seems to be some confusion among MP’s…Check the car park at any nick after 4.00 pm. Take a note of all the empty designated bays. Then make a list of everyone rostered as not working between 24th December and 2nd January… Read More

During the Select Committee Paul McKeever, Chairman of the Police Federation, responded to a question posed by Mark Reckless MP… “But surely the cuts for any given reduction that’s needed should be made in a way that is most productive and efficient for policing rather than in a way that protects people who happen to be your members?” There has been suggestion by some that Paul’s reply is based solely upon the interests of his own membership, I would have to say I disagree with that observation… 

“I agree. One of the frustrations that I think we have throughout the police service—it’s not just us in the federation; people talk about it privately—is that we seem to be doing it the wrong way around. We are making the cuts and then looking to create a model, rather than actually deciding what the model is and then making the cuts afterwards. It seems that the model is going to be formed by the cuts and that can’t be the best way forward, because when I listened to Bill Bratton, who came over recently and was a guest at Policy Exchange, he was saying that there are going to be some real unintended consequences to what is happening in this revolution in policing.” (Paul McKeever)

The difference in people’s perception of Paul’s answer so obviously revolves around the first two words “I agree”. Some would say he is ‘agreeing’ to a reduction in police numbers where as I would say, he is simply agreeing with the observation; things get done the wrong way around. I think any intelligent person can accept cuts have to be made, the public purse is empty, however it makes no sense what so ever, to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’, using one of Paul’s comments, before the ‘new’ policing model is defined.

The Home Affairs Select Committee concluded…

“Police forces in England and Wales face a challenging future. There is no doubt that the Government is requiring significant savings from the police and whilst the link between police officer numbers and levels of crime is complex, in the police service the largest proportion of budgets by far is spent on the workforce. In order to make these savings, police forces will have to rethink and reduce the range of services that they provide and the way in which they provide those services.” (Rt. Hon Keith Vaz MP)

Like the government, and many of those within the service; I actually agree some cuts do need to be made and, they can also be made with minimal damage to the ‘front-line’. Effective policing is an expensive process and one the public and politicians have to decide if they want to pay for or not. There is of course the Allcoppedout option…

Your chance to emulate ‘Sid’: My ideas on replacing our expensive public sector police forces with a Zambian-trained Laotian Guard… (Read more)

That said, my definition of ‘front-line will be different to the one offered by many senior police officers and politicians. If I could give one, it would probably be in line with Inspector Gadget’s observation!

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