Policing: prevention better than cure?

North Yorkshire Police - Central Area Road Pol...
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It appears one of my recent Tweets – “N.Yorks Police speed camera detects almost 2,000 offences in 1 month http://t.co/KH4gEVG – Indicative of poor Roads Policing in the past?” – may have been misconstrued or taken out of context?

According to my source, it was suggested The Babble was simply having yet another unfounded and unreasonable pop at North Yorkshire Police officers. Let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth…

The policing issue I wished to raise (traffic law enforcement) is just one of those which reaches much further afield than simply within the county bounds. My intention was to highlight the topic, all be it in a slightly cynical manner, provoke discussion on the issues and follow it up later. It appears I had some minor success and I will now elaborate… The Tweet was in relation to a BBC News article published recently.

The specific topic highlighted here is just one in a myriad of problems facing British policing today, hence the modern importance of the Corporate Communications Directorate. A department, now common place in most police forces and one that will have prepared and published a media release on the subject. The aim being to inform the public and promote (often unseen) police actions. A highly commendable and mostly required function, the public want to know what the police are doing about the issues impacting upon them.

As ever, despite careful wording of any release, the police media team can only take an educated professional guess as to resulting public thoughts on the issue. There is also relatively little control over how that release is subsequently used by its recipients. However it also should be said that too often these days, police corporate messages tend to be more about placating public concern, and disguising failures in meeting public expectation. As I’ve pointed out before, too many good time stories and hot air, as opposed to tangible results and details about action. To be fair, this particular item does explain action.

To have any understanding of where things are going wrong (in policing) we need to revisit the original basic core purpose and functions of the British policing model… (1) The prevention of crime (2) the detection of crime and (3) the apprehension of offenders… In that order and that order alone. These priorities are listed (more or less) in descending order of difficulty, hence one of the reasons why this order is often turned on its head. Another reason is the one of ‘police accountability’, a factor usually measured by simple statistics. It is far easier to count arrests and tickets than count what has (or may have) been prevented however; even that simplistic methodology is mostly flawed (see here

NYP profess to be “Delivering modern policing in a traditional way” but, irrespective of this (arguably) pointless strapline, the word ‘traditional’ is actually more important than most of us care (or dare) to admit. We are constantly bombarded with the words ‘moving forward’ in almost every aspect of life. Any suggestion of history or tradition is generally frowned upon in business. These dirty words usually tend to suggest an organisation that is stuck in the past, stuck in its ways (right or wrong) and totally incapable of delivering anything of worth to a modern society, unless you’re involved in the antiques or memorabilia business that is. But British policing is a traditional function formulated during many years, a function that until relatively recently in our history, usually served us well.

That said, I can actually see the picture NYP is endeavoring to build in people’s minds; tell the motoring public that speed is dangerous and if you do it you face being caught and punished. That is true however, what are the realistic chances of actually being caught these days, despite the undoubted early success of any new technology deployed by our police? I would hazard a guess at, pretty slim!

They may have been unpopular, “why aren’t you out catching crooks instead of hassling drivers“, was an often heard cry however; roads policing officers on patrol were always a major factor in influencing driver behaviour, and subsequent accident reduction. Despite these officers (mostly) setting good example to others with their enhanced driving skills road manners, there was also a real fear of being caught. That fear has been reduced, as any driver will notice, how often do we actually see a police patrol car on our travels these days? Particularly in the more rural areas or remote sections of our highway network.

Police managers will tell you that; “modern policing has moved on” and “there are additional tools available in their armoury” or, “we need to show value for money” in our policing. All these factors may be true however; when the public actually hold little real fear as to the consequences of their actions, as with many aspects of the criminal justice system today, a great deal of police work (actual or perceived) becomes superfluous! 

Effective policing (of any kind), and in particular preventative policing, is a resource that impacts heavily upon the public purse. And as we all know, that public purse happens to be bereft of cash at the moment. Given the fact it is harder to quantify ‘prevention’ (mostly unpopular in this respect), as opposed to the bean counting of statistical results, any police patrol of a ‘preventative’ nature is mostly a historical pipe dream now.

But, isn’t this one of those (many) areas of policing whereby prevention is better than the cure? Better to influence than punish, unless punishment is the only realistic and required outcome? Speed camera technology may be one of those ‘additional tools’ in modern policing  however; it has no discretion (without human intervention), it can’t and shouldn’t replace the human resources actually required by policing, irrespective of the costs involved… Fact, not unfashionable antiquity!

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