West Midlands Police Budget Cuts Essay
One of Britain’s biggest police forces is planning to scale back the number of officers walking the streets and to introduce “self-service” digital policing because of large budget cuts and the changing nature of crime.
West Midlands police, which serves Birmingham and Coventry and surrounding areas, plans to reduce dedicated neighbourhood officers in nine of its 10 areas. “Bobbies on the beat”, walking an area in case they spot something suspicious on a random patrol, will be cut or reassigned.
The move could prove politically sensitive but West Midlands chief constable Chris Sims says it is justified because a proportion of crime has moved off the streets and into the home and online.
“It’s not possible to think we can properly protect the public and maintain a very visible style of uniform policing that people associate with this country,” Sims said.
West Midlands, which is Britain’s second biggest force, believes that a move to more centralised units and digital policing will deliver a better service by 2020, despite its budget being cut by 40% over that time.
Other forces are also warning that they will have to change their approach as cuts to their budgets bite. The Met police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, said his force will have to refuse demands to take on extra priorities and other agencies will have to do more to pick up “the pieces from society’s failings”, to cope with the cuts.
Hogan-Howe said radical reform of how the public was kept safe was needed and police would have to learn to say no to new demands unless they are allowed to deprioritise current commitments.
West Midlands police has been working with management consultants to remodel its approach and Sims says it will undertake radical changes in the way police prevent and solve crimes and deal with the public. He said that the changes would be needed even if the force was not facing its biggest budget cuts for decades.
The force is increasingly focused on a range of domestic crimes, such as the abuse of vulnerable people, internet fraud, domestic abuse, forced marriage and female genital mutilation as well as increasing its level of child protection.
“Now, threats and harms are not based on street-based issues. 50% of cases in Birmingham magistrates’ court are domestic abuse,” Sims said.
The consulting firm called in, Accenture, has devised plans for greater use of technology by officers to gather evidence, and for the public to access police services. The thinking is that those wanting to complain to police or pass on information will have a “self-service” experience more like online banking or online shopping, contacting police at a time of their choosing, rather than when a police station is open and an officer available.
Police hope to be able to better use material from the public, such as pictures and material on social media, to fight crime. They also hope to use data analytics to send officers to prevent and detect offences.
The West Midlands force is not equipped to harness the crime-fighting opportunities from some old technology, never mind newer developments, and officers “can be chasing CCTV images a week after an incident,” said Sims.
Like most police chiefs, Sims is working on the assumption the UK is only halfway through the cuts proposed under the Conservative-led coalition’s austerity plans.
Some chiefs have talked privately about cuts so large their forces are reduced to 1980s-style policing, responding to crises only, with heavy cuts to prevention and building relationships with those they serve.
By 2020 the West Midlands force expects a 40% reduction in funding. Its overall number of staff, which was 13,500 in 2010, stands now at 10,500, and by 2020 is expected to be down to 8,000.
Sims says that he believed that it would be possible to contend with the cuts: “I think we can deliver outcomes better than we do”.
But it will mean less officers on the street patrolling and dedicated neighbourhood teams, previously seen as crucial to police being closer to the public they serve. Sims said currently the number of staff devoted to neighbourhood policing – 1,300 officers and 700 community support officers – was not sustainable. “For customer and austerity reasons, that is not a model that will endure. Neighbourhood policing has pretty much been a universal offer. I do not believe it can be a universal offer by 2020.”
Under the new plans, most of the West Midlands will move from one team each covering one council ward to teams that cover several local neighbourhoods. The belief is that officers will gain greater expertise and be more flexible.
Sims said one concern he had with fewer officers patrolling is the impact on public support for the force, and the knock-on effects on its legitimacy. Police chiefs pride themselves on working with the backing of the communities they serve.
The West Midlands chief said: “If we don’t have the visibility people are used to, the police have to be very creative about building public support.”
Sims also believes fewer cases should go before a jury and more should be dealt with out of court, meaning more warnings, mediation and restorative justice. He said this approach was “more effective at preventing reoffending” and supported by victims.
“Clearly we will have less officers, will have moved away from the street-based visible officers. Some of the features of our service will change very significantly,” he said.
The plans are now with David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, for approval.
Police forces under pressure will see funding cuts as the government eases back on austerity.
The Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands was told by Policing Minister Nick Hurd that the Home Office knows forces nationwide are struggling to cope with cuts.
Now, government ministers plan to give the forces a better settlement in next year’s police grants.
The grants are announced next month.
Bosses at West Midlands Police have previously warned they are close to breaking point.
Central government grant for West Midlands Police has fallen by £145 million since 2010, and the number of police officers has been cut by 2,000.
The policy since 2015 has been to keep police funding level, once income from council tax precepts is taken into account, but this is still a real-terms cut due to the effects of inflation.
David Jamieson, the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, said Mr Hurd told him that there would be relief from funding cuts when the Minister visited Birmingham to open the force’s new headquarters.
Mr Jamieson said: “Nick Hurd made it very clear to me that he wanted to improve the funding police forces like the West Midlands receive.
“He recognised the stress police forces are under and confirmed that he and the Home Secretary were keen to give police forces an improved settlement in December.
“This is very welcome news. The government now need to act on this welcome change of tone from the Home Office.
“It seems like the campaign I have spearheaded on police funding is beginning to reap results.
“It was a disappointment not to hear good news at the budget, but the Minister’s warm words are strikingly different from anything I’ve heard from this government previously.
“I am now cautiously optimistic that we’ll get a better settlement when announced before Christmas.”