The State of British Policing: A State of Denial?
The message from former British Police Chiefs in their open letter to the Times newspaper this summer was frank and unequivocal: cuts to policing and political interference with operational independence have hamstrung the Service and created a feeling of lawlessness amongst the British public.
Its authors have all covered senior positions in the Metropolitan Police Service. Having now left or retired, they are free openly to criticise government policy without fearing career-limiting consequences, and have called for a formal public inquiry into the state of British policing.
Among other concerns, they warned that the current landscape of forty-three territorial police forces is outdated and hampers the response to threats from cybercrime and terrorism. They also underlined that public concern, particularly in London, is firmly focused on what is perceived to be an epidemic of knife-related violence – the capital having (at the time of publication) suffered over eighty violent deaths since the start of the year. The tragic circumstances surrounding Police Constable Andrew Harper, killed in the line of duty in Berkshire earlier this month, will have done nothing to assuage public concern further afield.
Their condemnation comes amid related warnings by incumbent public officials. Lynne Owens, Director General of the National Crime Agency (NCA), has repeatedly reminded politicians and the public alike that the Government's response to serious and organised crime is chronically underfunded. Calling for £2.7 billion in investment over the next three years, including an almost doubling of the NCA’s annual budget, the Director General’s candour is refreshing, though no doubt unwelcome in Whitehall at a time when the public purse is under ever-increasing strain.
Staggeringly, however, the requested increase is paltry when compared with the wider cost to the UK economy from serious and organised crime, which the Government assess to be at least £37 billion a year.
In his latest annual assessment of policing in England and Wales, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Tom Winsor, similarly highlights underfunding in both local policing and the wider criminal justice system. He warns that police forces are “straining under significant pressure as they try to meet growing complex and high-risk demand with weakened resources” and calls the state of criminal justice “dysfunctional and defective”, and in need of reform.
In an attempt to appease the electorate, some politicians have responded with all-too-predictable pledges to increase police numbers. Opting to play the classic ‘more Bobbies on the beat’ strategy from the Westminster crime-fighting manual, new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed to a 20,000 increase in officer numbers . Yet this solution is overly simplistic and inadequate on a number of levels.
First, it fails to recognise that effective policing requires adequately trained and experienced personnel throughout the police organisation, including dedicated specialist investigators and ‘back office’ support staff.
Secondly, and particularly with respect to rising knife violence, it fails to appreciate that drugs are a major (but by no means sole) contributor to the current upsurge in violent crime; a manifestation of organised crime which has a fundamentally international component. But it also conveys an unawareness of the impact the digital era has had on crime and how technology can be exploited to combat it.
The digital revolution has played a major role in the current state of affairs. While on the one hand it amplifies, accelerates and, in some cases, wholly enables criminal threats, on the other, law enforcement has not developed the tools to harness it at anywhere near the pace and scale that would allow it to fight back effectively and efficiently.
Through the eyes of law enforcement, serious and organised criminals have been the resounding beneficiaries of the Internet age. Whilst they exploit advances in global connectivity and encryption to conspire, launder funds and target victims with increasing impunity, law enforcement officers are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.
Infrastructure is creaking, data remains siloed – even within the bounds of individual policing bodies – and crucial insight is often left to wither on the vine, never to be revealed, let alone acted upon in good time.
We live in a time where industry seeks to assimilate every possible insight from the vast data trails left behind by our hyper-connected existence - knowing it is the determinant of strategic advantage and commercial success. Yet law enforcement units charged with reducing the threat from the most serious criminals afflicting the UK and its interests are still unable to seamlessly and rapidly harness the collective insights of even the government’s own data on these individuals. The clefts in the system thus unwittingly provide shelter to those who seek to corrupt, harm and steal on an industrial scale.
The landscape will only get more challenging. Whatever the implications of Brexit, the policy and legislation delta it creates will, unless urgently addressed, have a dire impact on intelligence sharing and EU law enforcement interoperability.
Fraud, in particular cyber-enabled fraud, is at chronic levels; with 96% of reported crimes going unsolved and total fraud losses estimated at around £130 billion a year, it represents an almost entirely risk-free, high-reward option for savvy criminals. And the introduction of 5G networks has the potential fundamentally to degrade communications-based investigation tactics - so vital given the criminals’ reliance on mobile devices to achieve their nefarious goals.
The rate of technological innovation in policing is dramatically outpaced by those crime-fighters seek to undermine - whose efforts are in no way confined by legislation or geographical boundaries, nor impeded by poor funding and overreaching bureaucracy. While more of an impact can surely be made, an increase in front-line officers is far from the best way to achieve it.
A nuanced approach will take time to yield results and undoubtedly risk increasing public impatience. But while spending more money to increase the police presence on the streets may lead to more arrests and ostensibly bring near-term improvements, it'll likely cause lasting damage as serious and organised criminals increase their lead – with the impact on communities most vulnerable to their activities being acute and enduring.
Instead of formulating policing strategy on the basis of what the public might want or demand, it's high time Ministers deliberated on what policies, capabilities and skills law enforcement truly needs, and invest accordingly if they genuinely intend to make the UK a hostile place for serious and organised crime.
This piece was submitted to Intelligence Fusion by a member of our guest blogger network.
Adam Irwin is a former police officer and Senior Manager with the UK's National Crime Agency. He now works as a private sector security and risk management consultant, specialising in intelligence and investigation matters.