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The police should engage with the arguments behind the defund movement. It is time to rethink the role and purpose of policing

Following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter uprising, a movement to “defund the police” has gained traction in the United States and to a lesser extent here in Britain.

We should note that there are major differences in context that need to be taken into account in trying to understand the merits or otherwise of the campaign to defund the police. In the US the police have received substantial increases in public investment in recent years, whereas in England and Wales the police budget has been cut by around 20 per cent since 2010.  As many British police officers have pointed out, we have been defunding the police in this country for the last ten years, although instead of diverting those resources into preventative services, as the defund movement has demanded, these cuts have been replicated across the rest of the public sector.

In that context police officers here have responded to the call to defund with a good dose of scepticism and some anger. I understand where that scepticism comes from, but I am not the first person to argue that rather than dismiss these arguments, policing would do well to engage with them.  They may find, as former Chief Superintendent Owen West writes, that “what is proposed is actually quite close to what many UK police officers have been calling for for decades.”

The defund argument has emerged from a context in the US in which very many Black people feel surveilled, harassed and unfairly treated by the police. In that context a demand for fewer police and less policing makes sense to many people as a way of improving rather than reducing their safety.  While the situation is very different here, the experience of disproportionality in police contact and use of police powers in England and Wales means that the defund argument has a resonance here, along with wider calls for greater police accountability and action on the use of stop and search. 

However, there is another element to the  “defund” argument which I want to focus on in this piece and that is the idea that the role and remit of the police has become over extended in recent years and it is time to rethink the scope and purpose of what they do. It is this claim of the defund movement that I think many within policing would strongly agree with.

In the US the over extension of policing was partly a result of increased police budgets as part of a nation-wide “war on crime” through the 1980s and 90s. There were more cops, at precisely the same time as other forms of public provision were cut back. It was also a consequence of the popularity of “broken windows theory” in many US police departments, which led to the police clamping down on all sorts of minor and trivial issues (parking fines, noise complaints, littering etc) as a way of tackling, by extension, more serious crime. The consequence, as Alex Vitale argues in his book The End of Policing, has been a widening of the police remit and a feeling in many communities, particularly for people of colour, that the police are constantly on their backs. 

In the UK the causes and the context are different, but there has also been an expansion in the police role in recent years. Some of that is a result of largely positive legislative change that has, for example, given the police a larger role in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. The police have also taken on public protection responsibilities around the management of offenders in the community. 

However, much of this remit extension is less due to deliberate policy change and more a by-product of austerity since 2010. As a 24/7 emergency service with a role in responding to all kinds of harms the police have found themselves being called out to deal with more issues involving those who are multiply disadvantaged. For example, the number of mental health related incidents reported to the police increased by 28 per cent between 2014 and 2018 and incidents involving missing people rose by 46 per cent between 2013/14 and 2016/17.

There has also been a desire within the police service for police work to become more preventative.  This is a natural response to dealing with countless incidents of social failure every day: the police have wanted to try to get further upstream to see what they can do to prevent these problems in the first place. So, for example, we have seen in one force police officers identifying children and young people who may have suffered from Adverse Childhood Experiences and then working with families and other agencies to develop plans to better support those children and young people in the future. 

There is much to be said for this kind of work (someone should be doing it), but these examples raise the question as to whether the police are best placed to be doing it. Indeed, some go further and argue that the police may end up doing more harm than good, by looking at these issues through a policing lens rather than say from a health or a social work perspective.

It should also be added that at the same time as the police role has extended the variety and complexity of the investigative work the police do has also increased, particularly as a result of many previously under-reported crimes (such as sexual crime and domestic abuse offences) now being reported in larger numbers. 

Can the police, with their limited resources and existing professional competencies, successfully meet all of this demand? The forthcoming report from the first phase of the Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales (to be published on 29th July) concludes that the police cannot successfully meet all of the demands we are currently placing upon them. This leads us to the conclusion that we need to think again about the role and purpose of the police, and to do so while also considering the roles and responsibilities of other actors who have an impact on public safety.  Thinking about policing as part of a wider system is also something that has been raised by those who have called for crime, particularly violent crime, to be viewed as a “public health issue”. In the US context as a consequence of the Black Lives Matter movement there has been a call to think about alternative systems of public safety, in which the police play a role alongside others.

My own view is that the time has come for us to be more explicit about what we want the police to do, and where they fit as part of a wider system of communities, actors and institutions. In the next phase of the Strategic Review we will be looking at what that role, and that wider system of public safety, should look like. 

What should characterise the police role?  The police are not just crime fighters, as almost everyone who looks at these issues accepts (most calls to the police are non-crime related). They have a 24/7 general response role that is hard to see any other agency or profession carrying out.  Demand is unpredictable, often peaks at night and at weekends when other agencies are closed and is often ambiguous (it is not clear what the incident is really about until someone attends). This all means that a general response service oriented at preventing harm and providing provisional solutions to all manner of problems is required. Given the fraught nature of some of these incidents it is very hard to imagine anyone other than the police, with the powers that they have, doing this successfully.    

It also seems desirable that the police should think preventatively when they are doing their work.  Indeed, there is a good evidence based behind “problem-oriented policing” which has a strong preventative dimension.  At the same time however we need to attend to the boundary of the police role and that of others and be careful about overreach. The police are mainly and inevitably dealing with issues when things have gone wrong and upstream preventative work is likely to be more properly done elsewhere.

I understand why many within policing see “defund” as a threat. However, putting to one side the size of the police budget, underlying that demand are a set of concerns that both the police and their critics share. How do we most effectively improve public safety? Which actors and institutions should play a role in that? How should those actors and institution relate to one another as part of a system of public safety or indeed as part of a “public health” approach? And what should the police role be in all of this? We won’t be able to address all the many and varied public safety challenges we face unless we start answering these questions and be more explicit about what we expect of the police, of other agencies and even perhaps of each other.

The first report of the Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales, chaired by Sir Michael Barber and hosted by the Police Foundation, will be published on 29th July 2020.