PCC Blog 104

What happened to police numbers during the years of austerity?

Until recently I rather assumed that police forces across the country faced the same scale of cuts. Numbers would vary according to the size of the force but the percentages of officers being lost would be about the same. I was wrong.

I should have realised why this would not be the case. As we know, police funding comes from two principal sources – government grant and precept (council tax). If police forces receive different amounts of government funding as a percentage of their total funding, then cuts to government grant will have a bigger impact on those forces that are more dependent on grant. In addition, those that are in areas with a more robust council tax base – because they have more higher value properties – will be able to off-set some of those grant cuts through precept increases. This is probably what happened during the ten years of austerity. Some forces suffered less through grant cuts and were better able to make up for losses through council tax.

Some examples will show what I mean.

If we look at the number of officers three particular forces had in March 2010 and compare that with the number they had by 2019, we can see the impact of cuts. Northumbria is a force area that is most dependent on grant and Surrey among the least dependent:

Force                     number in 2010        number in 2019           % change

S Yorkshire           2953                             2370                               -19.7

Northumbria       4187                             3081                               -26.4%

Surrey                   1890                             1882                               -0.4%

Being less dependent on grant, Surrey can maintain officer numbers at pre-austerity levels, whereas South Yorkshire and Northumbria take massive hits.

Then see what happens as we start to come out of austerity. Surrey now has more officers than it did in 2010, while South Yorkshire and Northumbria are still well below the pre-austerity figures.

Force                  number in 2010           number in 2021          % change

S Yorkshire        2953                                2745                               -7%

Northumbria    4187                                3416                               -18.4%

Surrey                1890                                2086                              +10.4

Surrey has no town the size of our two cities and two major towns. Its largest centre of population is Guildford with 67,000. Yet despite the fact that it has no large urban areas and all the serious crimes associated with them, for ten years it was able to maintain officer numbers while places like South Yorkshire and Northumbria (Newcastle, Gateshead, Tyneside, Sunderland) had to cope with ever falling resources.

This had a significant impact on crime. It allowed the gangs to get embedded in some communities because as fast as they were disrupted, there were insufficient police resources to stop others moving in to take their place. And this is one of the great lessons of this time. If the organised crime gangs are to be defeated, it is not just what you do in the first instance, but whether you can follow through to help communities recover and regain their confidence in the police and their ability to tackle major crime.

I will have more faith in the levelling up agenda when I see this issue acknowledged and the police in the urban areas properly resourced.

FIT for purpose

The Chief Constable, Lauren Poultney, recently launched a Values and Behaviours Framework for South Yorkshire police. This is a very self-conscious first attempt to shape the culture of the force in ways that will help to build internal satisfaction and external public confidence. After conversations across the force, three key values have been identified: fairness, integrity and trust (FIT).

The Chief Constable notes that committing to these values requires some effort and determination.  This is because unless the values influence the way people behave towards one another and the public, they remain ideals without substance. Values show themselves in actions.

There may also be occasions when it needs some courage. Behaviours that conflict with these values will need to be challenged – which is not easy. But if officers and staff can’t do that, the organisation remains stuck.

But if the values and the types of behaviour they entail are broadly shared, that all adds up to a positive culture – for those who work in South Yorkshire police (SYP) and those whom the police  serve, namely you and me.

I warmly welcome this commitment to FIT. It is hard not to contrast what is happening here with what we have been witnessing in parts of our national life.

Understanding crime

I spend part of my time looking at statistics and trying to puzzle them out.

If we are to make a difference to crime we first need accurate data – what is actually going on. Public perception of ‘what is going on’ in every aspect of life is often far from the truth, but none more so than in the area of crime. We tend to be over influenced by something that happens to us locally, so that a burglary in our street or village becomes a perception that burglary generally is on the rise. Or we are influenced by a shocking crime, such as a murder, and again assume that our town or district is becoming less safe. I note all this because if that is what people feel, that is something that also has to be understood and worked with. But how do we correct those impressions if they are misleading? How do we help people to feel safe if their anxieties are misplaced? How do we educate without people getting angry as well as anxious!

Accurate statistics have to be the starting point and usually statistics over a period of time. Crime may go up and down from one month to another, or one year to another, the real question is what is the long term trend over time?

But even with accurate data, statistics do not interpret themselves. We need an explanation for what we are seeing.

I have recently been looking at figures that I find quite puzzling – the very long term trends in homicides – murder and manslaughter. The statistics are not easy to come by because we have to use different data sets, but that apart, they turn out to be really interesting and not what I thought. Roughly speaking, homicide rates fell from the beginning of the last century (1900) until the early 1960s, with an occasional upward blip – such as towards the end of World War 2. But then throughout the 1960s they rose steadily, reaching a peak in the early 2000s – and many times higher than in 1900. They then fell again until 2014/15, then rose again, peaking around 2018/19. They seem to be on the rise again now – hence the present government’s concern.

However – and this is the interesting part – if you separate out male victims and female victims a second story emerges. From the start of the twentieth century, until the 1970s, the number of female victims and male victims was more or less the same. But from the late 1970s that quite quickly began to change so that the number of male victims became about 70% and females 30%. That difference seems to be holding.

So if the first step towards making a difference is getting the data, and the second is understanding the data, what are these trends telling us? What happened from the late 1970s onwards that led to the homicide rate for males and females moving from 50-50 to 70-30? I am not sure that I have read anything yet that explains that convincingly. In fact, I am not sure I have read anything that explains it at all.

The enduring values

I am writing this over the Platinum Jubilee celebration weekend. In a variety of ways people have been thanking the Queen for her commitment to the values of public service over 70 years. Without that example of national leadership, especially at this point in time, we would surely be in a sorry state.

Stay safe and well.

South Yorkshire Police is currently recruiting for a number of positions as both officers and in support roles. To find out more about SYP officer roles, click here. To see the range of police support roles on offer, click here.