There can be no doubt the police service is facing a time of unprecedented pressure. With Chief Officers commenting almost weekly on the new demands the service is facing and the difficulties these present you might question whether demand on the police service of the future will be manageable?
Recently Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, described how the police are guilty of saying, ‘yes we can,’ too much and how, when it comes to other agencies, “we have to make collaboration work or we’ll be picking up the pieces from society’s failings” (Hogan-Howe 2015, p.26). Others, such as Sir Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, have warned of a time when the police will only be able to provide a reactive, as opposed to preventative, service.
In January of this year the College of Policing published its analysis of demand on the police service. Based on data gathered from across the country their research demonstrated how demand is not just increasing but is also changing, with increased pressures in respect of mental health, missing persons and other protective statutory requirements.
What was interesting about this research was how little is known about preventing demand; “there is a limited amount of information on the amount of time the police spend undertaking problem solving … [on activities that allow] police to drive down crime” (College of Policing 2015, p.12). According to the research we are becoming clearer on the increasing demands the police face and the time it consumes, but we’re still unclear on the time invested in preventing the demand occurring in the first place. This leads me to pose the question, ‘what priority is placed on officers to spend the time, which may take months or even years, to reduce the unprecedented demands faced by the police?’
To reduce demand on the police by children’s homes, hospitals, care homes, and those tasked with the welfare of the more vulnerable in society, might just require a change in how the police service is viewed. Perhaps the problem isn’t demand on the police, but on how society, its communities and individuals view the role of the police and other agencies. Through a generation of ‘service provision’ and catchy lines such as, ‘You Said, We Did,’ have we achieved nothing more than a situation where many in our communities consider the first stage in resolving their problems to be a phone call to the police? And to perpetuate that situation, have the police been guilty of saying, ‘yes we can,’ in response?
I was at a PACT meeting recently where a neighbourhood sergeant gave an account of what his team had been doing over a three-month period. He described the demand they faced by just a few families with their disputes and the nuisance they caused to other members of the community.
What struck me was the phrase he used to end his account, how, ‘none of it was police related.’ So if it wasn’t police related then why were the police dealing with it? And what exactly was the ‘it?’ When I described this scenario to a senior officer recently he explained how in dealing with this demand in the here and now they had prevented more demand in future. I’m not convinced.
The problem here isn’t demand; it’s a culture of reliance built up through years of the police and other agencies consistently responding to incidents (or are they just events?) where individuals and communities have lost the ability to manage situations themselves. They call the police, the police say yes, and then find themselves entwined in a game of, ‘touched you last.’ Once embroiled in the ‘event’ police find themselves trapped as players in a game that shouldn’t be theirs to play. Is this the ‘invisible demand’ that is the real cause of the police struggling to cope with austerity?
While the demand described above starts with a non-police related event, there’s another type of ‘invisible demand,’ where the police and/or other agencies put solutions to problems in place that are the cause of further demand.
Consider the sign pictured in this blog. Yes, it really does say, ‘Games Prohibited,’ and yes, there are several of them still displayed in residential communities. We use this sign as a demand related case study in our courses (on the Skills for Justice Awards programme), where our delegates usually pose questions such as: ‘What’s the problem this sign is trying to solve?’ ‘Who put it up?’ ‘Why did they put it up?’ and, ‘how are you going to manage a caller who reports individuals breaching the sign’s conditions?’
Over 600 police and council officers across the country have gone through this exercise with the same questions being posed every time we run it. The answers they come up with follow a common theme:
The council, following consultation with police and other agencies, put up the signs. They are there to regulate the ‘anti social behaviour’ committed while people (mostly young) play ball games and if a call comes in (mostly to the police) we’ll have to record and deal with it.
What follows next is an exercise where we play out a report complaining of a ‘breach of the sign’ from a member of the public all the way to a police officer, PCSO or council officer visiting the caller. The smallest number of people the report has ‘touched’ in a new game of ‘touched you last’ as it goes from call taker to officer attending is seven and the most, thirteen. Invariably the exercise ends with the attending officer telling the caller, ‘there’s nothing we can do to enforce the sign.’
Sometimes we add a layer of complexity to the report with the caller stating how the behaviour behind the breach of the sign is causing them to feel vulnerable and at risk (or are callers just getting better at playing word games to press the right police buttons?). This scenario invariably leads to promises of additional patrols, providing words of advice to those involved and invariably a neighbour dispute as, ‘they got the police onto our kids!’ More demand, the type that grows and evolves as more players (neighbours, highways, housing, council, councillors) get involved in the game.
But just whose problem is this (I know, we don’t even know what the problem is)? Police? Housing? Council? Highways? Who should be managing the demand caused by this sign? The obvious conclusion is the agency who put it up should be responsible for ‘policing’ it? The end result is always the same; the message on the sign can’t be enforced, which leads to frustration from the community who expect services to provide workable solutions.
Recently I heard about a Community Trigger activation (where dissatisfied victims of ‘ASB’ can hold services to account if they’re not happy with the service provided) over a ‘No Ball Games’ sign not being enforced. The council / police solution was to take the sign down. However, residents have been left scratching their heads – who is going to deal with the behaviour now the sign has been taken down?
Through the adoption of ‘yes we can’ have we created a society that will continue to create more and more ‘invisible demand’ for the police and other services? Where demand is perpetuated by services that keep answering calls for service because they can’t say no and where the solutions to problems within communities from the police and other services do nothing more than create further demand?
While the police may not be able to reduce the demand from issues concerning mental health and such like, could they better tackle the ‘invisible demand?’ There is an argument that individuals and communities are better equipped to manage disputes and problems within neighbourhoods. After all, don’t they have more of an incentive to resolve issues that concern them directly? However, instead of a ‘yes we can’ approach, the other extreme of, ‘no, that’s not our role,’ might be counter productive in respect of confidence in the police. The initially more difficult to manage answer will be, ‘we can’t deal with that for you, but we can support you in providing the skills to find your own solutions.’
Tackling loan sharks, organised crime gangs, drug dealers, sexual exploitation and other forms of specialist demand is the easy bit when it comes to demand, the police already have a recipe that works and can be improved on.
The tough problems that create ‘invisible demand’ are the: discarded sofas, broken phone boxes, damaged bus stops, neighbour disputes and the sign that tells everyone ‘Games Prohibited.’
The austerity challenge is to find new ways to deal with these issues and the demand they create – where community engagement needs to be less ‘You Said, We Did’ and more, ‘How Can We Support You.’
Brendan O’Brien (MEd) is a retired police officer. His interests after seven years as a neighbourhood inspector are: problem solving; community engagement; Anti Social Behaviour; tackling Organised Crime Groups and managing demand.
Brendan is currently the lead trainer for the Skills for Justice Awards ‘Problem Solving in Community Safety’ qualification delivered by Bluelight Consultancy Limited. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org