Breathing new life into the thin blue line

After a decade of budget cuts and changes in crime types, what can be done to prepare policing’s front line in the future? Rob James, of our Corporate Communications Team, looks at the issues facing our forces and how universities can help train new recruits

From the moment the austerity starting pistol was fired by former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne back in 2010, the police service has found itself losing ground in a race that has no visible finishing line.

Since then, the Home Office has cut back grant funding by half a billion pounds and forces have haemorrhaged frontline officers and support staff.

The service has been placed “under extreme strain”, according to the Police Federation, which represents all officers below the rank of superintendent in England and Wales.

“In comparison to 10 years ago, we are 20,000 police officers down, whereas the population has increased,” explains the Federation’s Professional Development Lead, Dave Bamber.

“Crime hasn’t decreased, no matter what figures you look at. It has probably increased, with fewer resources to be able to deal with that.”

And yet, despite these challenges, as well as the risks of dealing with some pretty unsavoury characters and incidents, and the frequent bad press the service has had to stomach, applicants with a clear sense of that ‘duty to serve’ have never been in short supply when forces have been hiring.

Changing times

Policing has had to change as crime has changed in recent years. Cyber-enabled crime, online exploitation and modern slavery were terms few, if any of us, had heard when the Coalition government began the squeeze on public services in 2010.

One other thing we hadn’t had eight years ago was the Office of Police and Crime Commissioner. PCCs were brought in as directly elected representatives of the public, charged with holding senior police officers to account and setting the direction of policing in their force areas.

PCCs, like Hardyal Dhindsa – the second person to hold the office in Derbyshire – have also had to work furiously with their senior officers to fend off the prospect of their forces becoming unsustainable as the cuts compelled them to shed thousands of officers and staff. Derbyshire has lost 800 personnel, a huge hit for a force of its size to absorb.

Four years ago, the then-Chief Constable of Lincolnshire, Neil Rhodes, wrote to the then-Home Secretary, Theresa May, warning that funding arrangements for his force would mean that by 2018, it would, in effect, ‘fail’ to provide the service.

Fast forward to 2018, and Lincolnshire still has a functioning police force and Mrs May, as Prime Minister, is talking openly about an end to the austere years, but police chiefs are not so sure. Derbyshire’s own Chief Constable Peter Goodman, speaking to the BBC in November (1), described current budget levels as comparable with the 1970s, warning: “There are cracks in the delivery of policing.”

Policing smarter

So what does it take to pull policing back from the brink? Reductions in Derbyshire had gone “too far”,
according to Hardyal Dhindsa. Even so, maybe the force doesn’t have to bounce all the way back to its pre-2010 establishment.

“In my opinion, going back to that level may not be needed and, realistically, may not be possible,” he says.

“However, to make a robust, resilient police force that can serve the communities of Derbyshire, fighting crime and protecting victims and communities, I think we need four to five hundred more officers to really get to a position where we are able to provide a good service across the piece, without spreading ourselves as thinly as we are doing at the moment.”

‘Smarter policing’ has been a buzz phrase in the service for some time, largely to refer to how policing is done, whether that is improved use of technology, or the creation of new processes and systems to compensate for the loss of officers and staff. It may not, when it was first coined, have referred to the required qualifications for recruits, but the College of Policing, responsible for the training of all officers, has decreed that by 2020, all new recruits will have to achieve a degree in policing.

The University of Derby is the first in the country to offer a Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (PCDA). It gives students an 80/20 splitbetween practical experience and classroom learning, spending blocks of four to six weeks on attachment with each of their force’s teams and departments.

“This is what makes this programme unique,” says the University’s Head of Policing, and former Derbyshire detective, Tony Blockley.

“What the students are getting is an insight into all the areas of the force that they are operating in, which is very different from the traditional probationary constable.

“One of the things that appealed to the students at interview was the fact that they were going to get to see a whole lot of the organisation in order to inform their future decisions about what they wanted to do.

“So, they’ll go to neighbourhood policing, to response, intelligence, to CID. There are a lot of things that the students will do which, ordinarily, officers wouldn’t have the opportunity to.

“The whole point of this programme is around professionalisation; to create an individual who is comfortable at challenging, who is thinking about the future and about continuous improvement and development.

“Policing changes on a daily basis, so you need forward-thinking people who are able to use critical analysis in a positive way to improve the service. Some of them will go on to be chief officers because they understand the value of what they are doing.”

Building trust

Ultimately, in a society which is policed by consent, that value comes from securing public confidence and trust.

“We want our officers to serve the public in a caring, thoughtful and intelligent way; in a way that the public actually feels we care about the issues that they are raising with us,” confirms Derbyshire Deputy Chief Constable Gary Knighton, who welcomed the new PCDA cohort at his force headquarters as they set out on their studies in September.

“It’s a big step to contact the police. The quality of what you do for victims, how you treat victims and make them feel, will remain with them for the rest of their lives.”

Representing the communities you serve is also important, says Hardyal.

“Based on the principle that ‘the police is the public and the public is the police’, you need to make sure that the diversity of the population that the police serve is reflected in the workforce.

“That’s not just diversity in terms of ethnic origin, but in geography, gender, sexual orientation and disability. Hopefully, the degree apprenticeship will help to move us
in that direction.”

There remains a question, however, about whether forces regard undergraduate officers as “deployable from day one” to attend incidents. Forces acknowledge it is an issue, and the Federation is clear that there needs to be a consistent approach.

“The investment in training time, and in protected learning time, is a key to the success of [degree
apprenticeships] in the future,” says Dave. “There may be short-term issues for forces to deal
with, but the long-term benefit of training your staff appropriately should pay dividends in the end.”

For more information, visit www.derby.ac.uk/undergraduate/criminology-policing-courses

  1. BBC Radio Derby Breakfast Show interview, 6 November 2018

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591891, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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