Prevention IS better than Cure in Policing

Sir Robert Peel

There is a well-known proverb that says prevention is better than the cure i.e. It is better to try to keep a bad thing from happening than it is to try to fix the bad thing once it has happened. It is my continued belief (see previous post) that effective policing is no different…

Sir Robert Peel, widely accepted as the ‘father’ of modern policing thought so too. He used this proverb when he set out the principles of policing in Britain, the first of which says; The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

The problem with applying this proverb to policing is; in quantifying success and efficiency, ‘prevention’ tends to be more difficult to measure than ‘cure’ but in any case, both are impacted upon by resource levels. Despite all the tools and technology available to modern policing, the function is often still labour intensive in both proactive and reactive elements of the job. 

The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it…(Peelian Principle #9)

One of today’s major policing problems is; very little ‘prevention’ is actually taking place any more. Yes we have moved on from the old ethos – bobbies on the beat prevent crime – (and they do) however, policing is (allegedly) so much ‘smarter’ than that now?

But fiscal constraints, born out of austerity measures have caused unprecedented cuts to police budgets, these have ensured that visible policing in many areas is almost non-existent. Despite all the political rhetoric, the creation of pseudo policing measures like Community Support Officers and CCTV or ANPR et al, putting everyone including the station cat in a hi-viz yellow jacket doesn’t mitigate against declining police officer numbers.

In addition, the service still endures the criminal manipulation of crime statistics. Political interference that is designed to make governing parties look like they’re tough on crime, whilst justifying the outsourcing of expensive policing functions to (supposedly) cheaper outside agencies. And we’ve all seen how well that is all working out with recent G4S scandals, haven’t we?

Policing in Britain now faces a perfect storm. The scale of the cuts, the chaos of confused reforms, escalating demands, and declining morale…(Yvette Cooper MP, Shadow Home Secretary)

Even the reactive aspects of policing that we all rely upon so heavily in times of emergency are now suffering, never mind the proactive and preventative aspects of the job. Add to this the constant bean-counting management that continues to take place and we have a recipe for the total demise of effective British policing.

Many say that police numbers aren’t the sole answer to prevent or cure the crime and social ills faced by policing, it’s all about being ‘smarter’ about how we deliver policing function. I would agree (in part) but physical presence still remains a very important factor in effective policing. This is even more criticle with the propensity for increased crime and/or unrest as things get harder for our society.  Add to this the media fuelled fickle nature of public support for policing and you should understand; any further decline in this downward spiral of so-called police reform is no longer acceptable.

A recent report (Taking Time For Crime) by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) examined whether or not police officers actually perform much crime prevention in the field these days.

No longer can the police operate as they have – in a predominantly reactive way that chases increasing demand for service. This is especially true in these times of austerity where more is needed from less. Now is the time to return to a preventive policing approach; one which was the foundation of modern policing in 1829…(Sir Denis O’Connor – H.M.C.I.C)

Commenting on these problems, many of which have their roots in the politics and fiscal elements of government direction and senior police management, The Thin Blue Line Blog highlighted the issues raised by an article in The Economist on the same subject.

…the HMIC figures show that 17% of recorded incidents to do with public safety and welfare (which make up 40% of all incidents) were hoax calls or abandoned calls to emergency services. That sounds like an awful lot. Expensive, too…(The Economist)

Could it be that our ‘expensive’ police have lost direction and are confused as to what is required of them, by the government, their leaders and society as a whole? Many media sources jumped with glee at yet another chance to knock the service, giving the impression it consists of thick officers wandering around the streets aimlessly. Not true, most officers know what they are doing and why, it’s the distinct lack of direction and constantly changing priorities and/or poor leadership that causes difficulty.

Bobbies on the beat: …six forces had different mission statements and only one referred explicitly to preventing crime. In part because the policing mission is ill-defined and in part because other agencies may be slow or reluctant to respond…(Thin Blue Line Blog)

As one commentator to the original article asked, how do you “prevent crime with one Sgt and six bobbies policing a town of 80,000?” This is the reality of the situation, one that in general has been hidden from the public. But shouldn’t any organisation, not least the police “clearly define its core objective and focus primarily on how to achieve that” and, as another commentator pointed out and continued, “for the police, it should obviously be crime prevention.”

Another commentator to the original article asked why, when the UK is home of the international centre of research into evidence-based prevention of crime (the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London), there appears to be so little of this research “apparently being implemented in the UK police.”

In New Zealand, by comparison, the entire police is moving to a ‘prevention first’ approach based on research such as that of the Jill Dando Institute. For example, they now focus on preventing repeat victimisation rather than just catching offenders, bearing in mind that just 6% of the nation’s population were victims in 54% of the crime…(Source)

HM Inspector for the National Team, Stephen Otter, said the study had shown; “even without the best infrastructure to support them, frontline officers are outstanding at getting-by to deliver an effective service to the public.”  But now, probably more than ever before in this period of reducing budgets, “…there is a need to enable frontline officers to operate in the field as independent professionals.”

One thing is for certain, this political and Government induced atrophy of our once great police service must be halted now and quickly reversed, unless we’re happy to witness it becoming terminal that is?