Last week Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published a report entitled ‘Core Business: an inspection into crime prevention, police attendance and the use of police time’. The report’s most notable finding was that victims of certain crimes were largely being asked to investigate the crime themselves.
Some police forces are asking victims to carry out their own investigations by speaking to neighbours, checking for CCTV images and seeing if their stolen property has been put up for sale online. The report states that on many occasions this occurred with police call-handlers filing the crime report without any direct or further contact with the victim.
The ‘DIY’ approach to tackling crime is described as an emerging trend in some areas, with high-volume offences such as car crime, criminal damage and non-residential burglaries those most likely to result in self-investigation. The report also warns that in areas where the police have given up investigating these offences, they are “on the verge of being decriminalised”.
The HMIC found that in only 6 of the 43 police forces is it policy to send an officer to attend all reports of crime, whereas other forces use a call-handler to make an assessment based on set criteria to prioritise resources. This is by no means a ridiculous way to manage resources, if nothing is to be gained from sending officers, that is, all relevant information can be gained over the phone then this is arguably acceptable.
It becomes unacceptable if the report is filed and no further action taken or contact made with the victim. The efficient management of resources should not mean that victims’ crimes are not treated seriously or those victims are not treated with respect and courtesy. The knock-on effect of poor treatment may be that the police is held in low regard and those victims may be reluctant to report crimes they may suffer in future.
The report states:
“Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary finds this expectation by these forces that the victims should investigate his own crime both surprising and a matter of material concern.
The police have been given powers and resources to investigate crime by the public, and there should be no expectation on the part of the police that an inversion of that responsibility is acceptable”.
Victims are not endowed with the power or the skills required to investigate crimes with legitimacy or impartiality. This has to remain within the remit of a legitimate body whose duty it is to investigate. Admittedly the extent of investigations suggested is unlikely to infringe on the rights of others, but it arguably signals a change in attitude. The responsibility for law enforcement following a crime has shifted ever so slightly into the public domain, whereas preventative law enforcement through the private security sector (car and burglar alarms for example) has been the responsibility of individuals for many years. Arguably one should be expected to take reasonable precautions against crime, but equally should not then be expected to investigate if they fall victim.
This aside, one can imagine that it would only add to a victim’s troubles if they were told that the only way the perpetrator will be brought to justice is if they go out and catch them themselves.
The report also found nearly half the police forces were unable to provide any details of the reported crimes their officers had attended, and that a third were failing to identify repeat and vulnerable victims when they rang to report an incident.
Inspector of Constabulary Roger Baker said:
“We found that this vital element of evaluation and analysis is still lacking in the majority of forces, with fewer than a quarter of forces investigating demand in order to prioritise and organise their workforce. In this age of austerity it's more important than ever that forces understand how to prioritise their resources.”
These are almost inexplicable failings in the current age of computer driven analysis, and I would argue are institution failures of management and organisation, rather than the commonly provided explanation: budget cuts. Although they may contribute, the report writers argue that the trends highlighted in the report were set years before budget cuts took effect.
The report also found that Community Support officers were being used as detectives; people received a different response from the police for the same kind of incident, depending on where they lived; attendance rates at crime scenes varied from 39% in Warwickshire to 100% in Cleveland; about a third of forces were failing to identify vulnerable and repeat victims; there was "inadequate" use of technology by the police; and some forces were losing track of named suspects because they did not have effective systems in place.
HMIC has made 40 recommendations for forces to improve their performance, but a more fundamental debate needs to be had on what the public want and expect their police forces to be.
A phrase which is continually repeated is that there is a demand for ‘visible community policing’. This essentially means more officers patrolling the streets and supposedly deterring criminals. Arguably, this is largely a waste of time and resources.
I would suggest that any deterrent effect is minimal and more an effect of postponements, as these officers are only truly effective in preventing crime and catching the perpetrator in the unlikely event that they happen to stumble across a crime being committed. Furthermore to be ‘visible’ most people would prefer officers to patrol on foot, whereby they cover less ground and increase the time it takes for them to react.
The police’s ability to prevent crime by being around to stop and deter its commission is decreasing, and this role has largely been overtaken by private security services, be it personnel or technology. It makes much more sense for the police to be a reactionary crime fighting force, whereby they use the powers only they have to investigate, catch and assist in the prosecution of the perpetrators of crime.
The nature of crime is changing and with increasing responsibility being placed on individuals to protect themselves and deter crime through use of the private sector, the role of the police must also change. I am not suggesting that the police should stop patrolling the streets entirely, but with the technology available, and a focused investigatory police service, the issues raised by the report should not occur. The answer to reduced resources is not to waste them on ‘visible community policing’ but to use technology to investigate crimes and catch those responsible.