Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Problem of Police Priorities



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Gabriel Campos, MSc student in Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Oxford. This is the fifth post in a series reflecting on six special seminars organised and hosted by the 2015-16 MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice students.

On 27 May 2016, the Centre for Criminology’s MSc cohort had the pleasure to welcome Stan Gilmour, who took time to talk to students about ‘the problem of police priorities.’ He is Superintendent Police Commander of Thames Valley Police, currently the Local Policing Area Commander for the city of Reading. His outstanding policing background includes experience in neighbourhood and community policing, firearms, intelligence, serious crimes, and counter-terrorism. In addition, Superintendent Gilmour is an alumnus of our MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice (2005/06), which made the occasion even more special.

Superintendent Gilmour started his presentation with a brief explanation of how the police are organised in England and Wales as a unified force, responsible for all possible police tasks, from community policing to national security policy and counter-terrorism. There are 43 separate police forces in England and Wales, each of them headed by a Chief Constable (or a Commissioner, in the case of London). The Chief Constable has legal responsibility for policing in the local area. The area tends to coincide with the political area, be it a metropolitan area or a county. Apart from some metropolitan areas, such as London and Manchester, which have metropolitan polices, most areas have county police forces. Thames Valley is one exception, covering three counties, namely Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Berkshire.

After describing this overall framework, Superintendent Gilmour moved to the topic of his talk, police priorities. To begin, he mentioned a quote from a report of the Independent Police Commission released in 2013 and entitled Policing for a Better Britain, according to which ‘police forces are public services that allocate scarce resources and choose between different priorities.' Prioritisation in policing is key because, as Superintendent Gilmour noted, ‘everything costs something.’ Every police activity has costs associated to it. When a police manager spends money on something, it will be at the expense of something else (a ‘hydraulic effect’). The complex role of the police includes not only crime prevention and detection of crime, but also things like encouraging proactive engagement while retaining reactive emergency responding capabilities, and contributing to community cohesion while maintaining order. Priority decisions are made under a framework that gives discretion to the police, otherwise prioritisation would not be legally authorised.

In Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime, a 2008 report by Louise Casey, ten public's key priorities are discussed, and this is where the problem of prioritisation starts to become more complex. For example, the first priority in that list is to provide ‘a service that takes action―responsive, approachable, coming out quickly when called to incidents, acting on, following up and feeding back on progress to members of the public when they report crime and antisocial behaviour.’ According to Superintendent Gilmour, the Casey report lists ten approaches or ways the public want police officers to behave, but not actual police priorities. This dissonance demonstrates the complexity of any conversation about priorities in policing. One of the approaches mentioned in the report relates to 999 emergency response. People want an efficient service. The police manager now knows s/he needs to prioritise and spend money on emergency response. But what level of service should be pursued? A response within five, ten, 15, or 20 minutes? Also, the same level of service must be provided, regardless of geographical characteristics of the area. People living in rural areas should have an emergency response as quick as the one provided in urban, metropolitan areas. Of course, police officers will take longer to get to isolated, rural area, requiring police managers to employ more officers in that service, even if they won’t have a very significant workload. ‘Priorities start to hit hard,’ said Superintendent Gilmour.

Priorities turn into concrete tasks for the police to perform: (a) catching offenders, (b) preventing crime, (c) promoting and maintaining order in our communities, (d) listening closely to the demands of everyone, (e) meeting the needs of victims, and (e) helping the most vulnerable in our society. How, then, to prioritize those tasks―that is, how to allocate police budget?

Considering the first task, catching offenders, Superintendent Gilmour unpacked the idea and talked about some difficulties faced by police managers. Should the police prioritise catching offenders who are attacking the most vulnerable in society or those who are causing the most harm? Or should the focus be on those posing the biggest threat? Police prioritization needs to define vulnerability and identify vulnerable people: children, migrants, the elderly, people with mental health issues, women and men who are subject to domestic abuse, and so on. Superintendent Gilmour gave the example of a young girl who grows up in a troubled family and has a history of being abused. She turns to drug and alcohol and engages in prostitution. According to him, women who work in in the sex trade should be treated like victims, even though they are also committing crimes.

How then to catch an offender? The police’s decision to intervene in the timeline of catching an offender is crucial. Do people want them to catch offenders before they commit crimes? And if so, at what point before―well before, just before, or in the point of doing it? This decision impacts the method or strategy to be employed: proactive, response, or reactive policing. Proactive policing, used in counter-terrorism, for instance, is extremely expensive, involving money, surveillance, and analysis. Geography also matters. Do people want police to catch an offender who is committing crimes locally or if s/he is offending somewhere else? Investigations of crimes committed in the cyberspace, for example, may be very expensive due to the need to analyse huge amounts of data collected in the personal computers of suspects.

Priority decision-making also requires listening to the demands of everyone. Police forces spend public money therefore they ought to listen what people think they should do with their money. Mechanisms designed to listen to the demands of everyone, of course, cost money. Everyone must be afforded a voice: local citizens, visitors, and workers; the Thames Valley Police area; the Home Office; the Ministry of Justice; the Treasury; local authorities, such as health authorities; several different boards like the Youth Justice Partnership Board (which is chaired by Superintendent Gilmour); and other community partners. Another issue deals with the problem of how to listen to local voices before deciding priorities. In Reading, for example, there are at least 150 different languages.

Superintendent Gilmour finished his outstanding presentation by showing a five-minute video of one of the meetings he often sets with the public in Reading. The level of engagement and excitement of the local residents participating in the meeting are clear proof of how he takes seriously the issue of police priorities and how his force is involved in listening to the demands of the people from Reading.