Peter Cuthbertson is a Conservative activist and occasional blogger. He works in public affairs. Follow Peter on Twitter.
Beat policing works. It was this conviction that led me to investigate for the TaxPayers' Alliance how well each police force in England and Wales performs in getting its officers out on the streets in visible roles.
The results should be studied carefully by the new Police and Crime Commissioners – by this measure, their predecessors as police chiefs varied widely in their success. What can be learned from the best-performing forces, who get out about twice as many police at any one time as the worst?
Anyone sceptical of number of police on the beat as a measure of success should turn to James Q. Wilson's brilliant Thinking About Crime for both theoretical and data-driven accounts of why and how it works. Wilson, who founded 'zero tolerance' policing, goes through the evidence from both the UK and US to demonstrate how a greater police presence cuts crime. This was true even for those experiments in which increasing the police presence led to no more arrests, suggesting a deterrent effect as criminals worry about being caught in the act.
Traditional beat policing allows an officer to get to know his turf – to gather local intelligence. It permits sustained observation of known troublemakers. It makes people feel safer. It is also essential to stifling the kinds of anti-social behaviour that in themselves ruin quality of life for so many, and which create the conditions in which serious street crime flourishes. I've never heard anyone deny the effectiveness and necessity of a strong police presence around Parliament and potential terrorist targets, royal visits, football matches and other events that draw large crowds. It is difficult to see why this fails to apply to policing more generally.
Other police work is valuable, such as investigating crimes. But it is false to suggest solving crime requires keeping police chained to their desks. If this were the case, one would expect those forces with a higher share of 'visible and available' police to have lower 'sanction detection' rates (i.e. a lower rate of crimes solved). Instead, there is actually a positive correlation between the two measures (0.3). This could be down to greater local intelligence and more knowledge of likely suspects, more criminals being caught in the act – plus the deterrent effect reducing the burden of crimes needing to be solved back at the station.
On average, only 11.8% of the police officers and PCSOs in England and Wales are "visible and available" to the public at any one time. With a police budget of £13.2 billion, this works out as £792,851 per year for each visible and available officer/PCSO.
There is huge variation by force, suggesting some have much to learn from others. The 20 forces with the highest and lowest shares of police visible and available are shown in the tables below:
It is important to note that while the two London forces appear in the above table, they have particular responsibility for financial crime and anti-terrorism, reducing the amount of time they can be visible and available. But even leaving London out, the variation is enormous. Northumbria Police averages 21 visible and available police/PCSOs for every £10 million it spends. Warwickshire Police manages just 8.2.
No one would credit or blame the newly elected PCCs for these figures, which precede their election in November. But they do provide the PCCs with a benchmark for the future. They can and should look at how they compare to other forces, and do more to get their officers out on the beat.