You may have read about the #cutshaveconsequences campaign. If you haven’t, where have you been? It has been well publicised on social media and many are now using it to illustrate the effect upon daily business at all levels of the police and other public services. The message is a stark one: cut the funding, and these cuts will be reciprocated in the service that is provided. This isn’t through malice, or laziness, or spite, it is a simple equation of supply and demand. Cutting the ‘low hanging fruit’ from police budgets have supposedly resulted in ‘efficiency savings’, but savings in which bit of ‘efficiency’ are we talking about?
Well, it transpires that the ‘low hanging fruit’ was often back office function. Frontline cops will tell you that these people are rarely seen, but that is – of course – not surprising. It isn’t their job to attend calls, and the vast majority of their work deals with invisible demands like file preparation, community engagement, HR processes, communications and training. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but ask any business how they would feel to lose a portion of their training/PR/Admin staff and they will tell you that they play an intrinsic role in making the business run properly. What happens to the work that they were doing, when they aren’t doing it anymore?
Well some of it will just be lost, other parts of it will be passed on, and a classic example of this would be back office case file preparation. Maintain the numbers on the frontline, yet move work previously placed in back office function on to their toes. Remove some call handlers and the response time/call answered time rises. Train cops face-to-face less, pile up the NCALT packages in their place, and you will have officers making more mistakes. Add the extra paperwork on top of the mistake, the higher level of injuries caused through increased response time, and the lack of reassurance function and it all starts to look a little more complex.
Calls to the police haven’t fallen, and failure demand from similarly cut other public services is on the rise. Failure demand is where the problems raised can not be dealt with properly via the system that is in place, and it continues to create often worsening calls to service as the problem is compounded. A classic is mental health, where police are feeling the brunt of another system which is really struggling. As local authorities can’t finance anti-social behaviour interventions or problem tenancies the police again often catch the fall out. This risk grows through a very stretched social services, who are attempting to deal with complex family problems with similarly reduced resources. Fallout? The cops again.
But crime is falling!!! You will hear the cry shouted from the rooftops. Not everywhere it’s not. And let’s be honest, the problem here isn’t that simple either. The recording structure is archaic and immensely complicated, new crime profiles (cybercrime) are not even included (!!!), and there are still target based performance cultures in place up and down the country. Where there are targets, there will be perverse behaviours, and right now in the current climate, cops certainly don’t need them (and never should they). The word ‘crime’ is becoming synecdoche (long word roughly meaning it’s far too simple to describe what it represents). Policing is not all about crime anymore (and it never was), and the recent work from the College of Policing proves this.
The next possible policing change is the amalgamation of neighbourhood policing into response teams, or reductions in the numbers of officers working in communities. It has always been described as the jewel in the crown of British policing, and rightly so. It increases legitimacy, forges relationships, creates trust, solves problems, and represents someone to talk to face-to-face. It is heavily linked with preventative work and engagement, the kind of work you can’t measure. Some people may cynically state that it is very hard to ‘prove’ it’s value. It’s actually very easy, go and speak to the communities about the value their beat bobby brings. Other options include workforce modernisation or very risky refusal of response in particular circumstances (which I personally think could be awful).
So, further cuts have been announced, what may happen now? Frontline cops have already fallen, and make no mistake, they are now stretched. Police operate in a high stress environment and the physical effects of the job can be debilitating at the best of times. Because of this high stress level, the resultant recovery needed is higher than most professions. If you want to read about this, check out ‘Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement Officers,’ it’s a great read and it changed the way I understood my job and the effect it had on me. It talks about a syndrome called ‘Magic Chair,’ where a cop finishes work and sits in a particular chair. They can sit for hours and stare, not really taking in or interacting with others, not even really watching the TV. Sleep is physiologically difficult because of the speed that their mind reaches processing what has happened that day. It’s a biological reaction, in answer to the high stress environment that they work in. It causes problems in relationships, and health will often suffer because alcohol is often used to self medicate. It’s a dangerous spiral to get into and it can lead to mental health issues down the line if not checked. (Read the book if this chimes with you!)
The interesting part of the book deals with those people that are experienced cops. It details the first domestic violence incident attended, and discusses the biological reaction of adrenalin release, high heart rate, perspiration, and that anxiety feeling. Older cops will tell you that this lessens with experience, but the research has proven that it still happens… The officers just get much better at dealing with it. It still takes its biological toll, it still causes the anxiety and higher heart rate, and as such your body will need to hit a comparative ‘low’ to balance this out and let you recover. It’s called the ‘Emotional Rollercoaster,’ and if you’re a cop, you are never off it.
So why have I started with cuts and ended up discussing stress? Easy, whilst people speak about increasing legitimacy of the cops, gaining greater trust, making them more accountable, and forging better partnerships, austerity is causing the functions that support these things to be reduced. The reactive policing function is fast becoming the last bastion of the frontline. Stress rises accordingly with reduced support, frontline cops suffer higher workloads and ever more scrutiny. Backup is always that bit further away. That stress ‘high’ causes more and more biological damage, causing mistakes to be made and lower rates of physical health. This results in higher sickness levels, and subsequently a cycle of more stress on colleagues that are already strung out. I don’t think that I need to explain anymore…
So what are the consequences of the cuts? Well, they are human consequences. Strung out officers starting to turn in and roll into tight defensive balls as they feel attacked from all sides. Families of officers who feel the Rollercoaster lows at every end of shift. Victims feel them acutely as preventative work wanes and response times rise. Mistakes are made and otherwise great people are put under huge pressure as their decision making is called into question. And slowly, but ever so surely, a dialogue of ‘us and them’ emerges. Cops have to fight this like hell, because there is only ‘us’, grasp the nettle, and deliver as best they can in spite of these cuts, because that is what cops do. The public rely on them. Head held high, support colleagues as if they were family – because they are family.
Cuts do have consequences, and they aren’t rooted in response times, log to attendance ratios, or detections. They are rooted in people’s wellbeing. Looking after officers and treating them properly has never been so important as it is now.