Features: February 28th, 2003

Can the Police Deliver?

Denis O’Connor, Chief Constable Surrey Police.

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

To make a judgment on whether the mainstream public services, like the police, can deliver what is expected of them we need to pin down what they are being asked to deliver. There are sometimes conflicting, even daft, expectations aired in the media and conflicting requirements by Government and the public on what can be done in policing. This article looks briefly at the expectations of each of these groups and takes stock of the choices that exist in terms of what the police can contribute to the delivery agenda.

The media

Different elements of the media rehearse different issues about the police. For example, The Economist took the view that the Home Secretary shouldn’t panic about crime because burglary and vehicle crime were down and the remaining area to be conquered was robbery. If only it was that simple! My experience at public meetings and elsewhere is that people do not talk about detection rates or burglary statistics except in the very unlikely event that they themselves are one of those statistics. They talk about the sort of issues that are raised in local –and some national newspapers, chief of which is “The Bobby on the Beat” issue. This is not always a call for greater police numbers. Sometimes, for example, in a Times editorial, there was a call for redeployment of existing resources without dealing with the full consequences likely to follow such a decision.

The Government’s agenda

David Blunkett indicated in his speech to Superintendents in September 2001 that, in order to give them a better focus on Government expectations, he intended to halve the number of Performance Indicators for the police service. This has yet to happen. There are over fifty Best Value Performance Indicators ranging, for example, from the number of civilian employees retired on medical grounds to the number of violent crimes committed by a stranger per 1000 of the population.

In the Government White Paper “Policing A New Century” police deliverables were re-defined as being ….’to build communities in which crime and the fear of crime is reduced and in which people have confidence that criminal and anti-social behaviour is effectively confronted.’. We would all, of course, want to support these aspirations. They are very fine ends to aim for, but what is less clear is the means by which they will be realised. Those referred to in the White Paper include a mixture of better intelligence, wardens, greater efficiency and audit, comparison and dissemination of best practice by the new Police Standards Unit. Even with all these in place – and we are still a long way from that – there will remain some choices to be made.

Local issues matter to the public

Perhaps the most consistent theme that emerges from the public is their concern about their streets and their neighbourhoods. Even in Surrey which has the lowest figures of recorded crime in the English counties per head of population, this is a live issue and we are working with Surrey University and the Metropolitan Police to understand it better as a prelude to improving delivery.

Over the last ten years the police have focused on volume crime and they, together with other influences, have had some success in relation to burglary and vehicle crime but yet the public have not been convinced that all is well. This is likely to be because of what they see on their streets. 999 calls relating to disorder and street robbery are up.

Work in Surrey as well as elsewhere in the country suggests that people are particularly sensitive to what is happening in their own local environment and that they are able, almost unconsciously, to register triggers in their environment, as well as reregistering comfort factors such as police officers and Neighbourhood Watch signs. The fear triggers focus on incivilities such as abandoned cars, graffiti, poor lighting, vandalism and litter. Whatever the ambitions of professionals, the media or the Government, we should not under-estimate the public perception of security and safety based around these triggers. The evidence is that people have been registering them with increasing concern for the past 10 years. The most recent authoritative research in London summs this up saying “People wanted reassurance that the police would protect them from the threat of crime and disorder. But they worried about some types of crime more than others. Their anxieties were connected and were often triggered by incivilities.” There is a social tide around incivilities and behaviour that has been flowing in the wrong direction. And unlike much crime, both volume and serious, it is highly visible and is to the forefront of the public mind.


The police “can do” lots of things; the question is what can they deliver that is relevant to the context outlined above. As it currently stands, the police do not have the capacity to reverse the trends on organised crime, street disorder and volume crime simultaneously. As a body we are sufficiently concerned about delivering for people that we have established our own equivalent of the Strategic Defence Review – the Strategic Police Review, to establish what capabilities we will need over the next few years to satisfy public needs and how those capabilities might be met.

In the year ahead changes in the counting rules for crime mean that the reported crime level is likely to rise which, in turn, will further fuel the demands made on the police from all quarters. This, together with the different and changing priorities of the media, government and public, mean that in the meantime there are tough choices to be made. There seem to be three options: to redefine police deliverables; to invest more in policing; or to find the tipping point in relation to each of the dimensions of policing. The problem with redefining police deliverables is that there will be less of something and I have not spotted any great enthusiasm for that as yet. Investing more is a matter of political choice but there are a number of other pressing priorities .The tipping point is the concept described by Malcolm Gladwell to reverse social epidemics, ie find the right collection of relatively small issues that can change people’s perception of what is fashionable on the one hand, spread disease rapidly and dramatically on another, or, in our case, control crime and disorder. We found the tipping point over the last ten years in relation to burglary and robbery, because crime trends, which had been rising by 5% a year, was dramatically reversed. The question is, can we do that in other dimensions of policing, notably serious and organized crime, street crime and incivilities. The answer is that we are doing some research in this territory but, at the very best, the jury is out.