Police contact with the public: people, technology and public confidence in the UK

Last February, independent police consultant Nick Gargan presented a study at a conference organised by Cityforum, a policy advisory and strategic development organisation. In this area, the UK’s leading police chiefs, suppliers and academics met and exchanged ideas on transforming the public contact of the police. Gargan reflected on key issues in the police public service, how to address public expectations, the increasing shift to digital channels, options for improvement in service delivery, and the fact that the entire police-public contact system is under great pressure.

Previously, police forces in the UK used to gear up for a spectacular night with an extraordinary demand for services once a year, with some 100,000 calls on New Year’s Eve alone. Now, for many forces, this extraordinary demand is a standard, sometimes daily, reality.

Each police force has its own story to tell, but the overall pattern shows public contact demand, which is 20-25% above pre-pandemic levels. And it is increasing by approximately 7% per year. Something is definitely off-balance.

Of the 350 individual rating judgements that have been issued, 30% rated the performance of the police force as “needing improvement” or simply “inadequate”. Less than half were better than adequate.

And the most problematic performance area of all? “Response to the public”. The first stage of most citizens’ contact with the police is likely to be the weakest and least satisfactory.

These challenges occur despite efforts to keep the system up and running. There have been successive waves of reforms and innovations regarding police contact management. But there is a difference between heroically facing an unwinnable challenge and winning. “Polishing the problem” no longer works.

The United Kingdom recorded more than 35 million emergencies in 2022. And the number continues to grow. Violent crime is on the rise: sex crimes increased by one third in 2022 and homicides by one quarter.

New types of emergencies are occurring; forest fires, hurricanes and floods have led to an eight-fold increase in natural disasters over the past 40 years. Medical emergencies are also on the rise: there were more than 16 million visits to Accident & Emergency departments in 2022. And population changes will continue to fuel demand: by 2050 the UK’s over-65 population will have increased by 25%.

Having officers come to the street to answer the phones may be unpleasant, but it is also unavoidable if there is a 37% vacancy rate. Increasing staff attrition rates only serves to exacerbate the challenge.

In the face of this rapid increase in current and future demand are resourcing challenges. Even recruiting at current establishment levels would undoubtedly be insufficient, but many forces struggle to manage it in the current lobar climate, especially in the south-east of the country.

Fewer staff are asked to deal with increasingly complex demand and to manage the deployments of a less experienced workforce using technology that, in many places, is in dire need of modernisation.

Short-term measures are needed to fill hiring gaps and even increase the workforce, but ultimately it is likely to be as futile as building more lanes on the M25 motorway: it may look like you are doing something purposeful but, in reality, that is unlikely. The problem needs to be solved.


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