PEOPLE used to cluck about police officers apparently getting younger by the day. They don't any more, because how would they know? They rarely see any.
The issue of where all the coppers went is (rightly) a sensitive one, particularly around election time. Nottinghamshire police chief Steve Green practically had to go into hiding himself after unwisely confessing that he couldn't keep up with murders on his patch because too many of his officers were sitting at their desks filling in forms.
Green was showered with brickbats, but he was only voicing, in extreme form, the frustration that many police officers experience every day: they know they could be so much better at preventing crime, collaring villains and reassuring the public (their three main tasks) if they weren't spending so much time fighting the system rather than the criminals.
The nagging problem is that although police numbers and spending are at record highs and crime levels are down, the public hasn't noticed any difference. Whatever the reason, there is a large disproportion between the effort going in and the perceived result.
Does this sound familiar? It should. Public cynicism about claimed service improvements bedevils the NHS and local government too, and for exactly the same reasons. The official yardsticks and specifications that the government imposes and judges by - waiting lists, proportion of e-enabled local services, even national crime levels - are out of register with public concerns. As far as voters are concerned, much of the extra billions spent on public services is missing the point. Policing is a brilliant example of this mismatch. Today's policing is designed as a response system - you call the police and an officer arrives (or is supposed to) pronto. That sounds a good idea - until you dis cover that, predictably, just 1-2 per cent of calls (in business terms, demand) represent real emergency.
The remaining 98 per cent don't require a bobby on the doorstep, or at least not immediately. But where the default is response there is no systematic way of responding to the overwhelming majority of non-urgent requests. They get shunted around between the specialist units (community, neighbourhood, schools liaison, witness protection) that are constantly being set up to deal with political hot potatoes.
The result of this compartmentalisation is that intelligence gets lost, the public gets cross - and costs go up, because people are ringing a second or third time to find out what happened to their previous call. About 40 per cent of 999 calls - and an even higher proportion of non-emergency calls - are preventable in that sense.
Meanwhile, the police are tied up sorting out what to do with the non-urgent calls, frustratingly compromising response to urgent ones. According to Richard Davis of Vanguard Consulting, in a police command unit of 350 people, at any one time just five or six officers may be available to respond to calls. Hence the obsessive calls for more resources to answer the phones, deal with paperwork and 'put coppers back on the front line' on the one hand and public ingratitude on the other.
It helps to understand how we got into this situation. In the 1970s and 1980s, faced with rising demands, expectations and costs, governments decided to go for economies of scale. They took calls out of police stations, transferring them to dedicated call centres, and consolidated response atlarger stations. Astonishingly, police stations are still being closed at a rate of three a month.
The result was a two-part (them and us) system much resembling that of the banks or IT help desks - a front office to field calls which it sorts and passes to back-office specialists for response. Unfortunately, just as with the banks and IT help desks, the arrangement made matters worse rather than better, raising costs and worsening service . This was the inevitable outcome of feeding varying demand ('Help!', 'I have something to tell you', 'Can you tell me...', 'Please do something about these noisy schoolkids') through a standard mass production line ('You can have any colour so long as it's navy blue').
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the present mass-production system is the loss of intelligence - fairly critical for policing, you might think. 'Intelligence is disintegrated from the call in the hand-off from the call centre to the specialist unit, and the officers then have to reintegrate it afterwards,' says Davis.
But (again as with banks or IT help), there is a smarter way. In the West Midlands force, two of its 21 operational command units are trialling ways of putting the intelligence back by reunit ing the two halves of the broken system and treating response as an end-to-end process. The approach involves setting up a 'clean room' on the real frontline where telephone agents and officers can figure what each call is really about and what would be needed to take it to a conclusion.
The characteristics of each geographical area for policing purposes vary, of course, but predictably so. 'What you learn is that the demand for policing is hugely predictable, in terms of time, place and even people involved,' says Davis. Once the predictables have been established, the appropriate resources can be put to handle them on the front line, with specialists on hand as needed. Technology, in the form of superior communications and analytical tools, backs them up.
'We don't use technology for its own sake,' says WMP Superintendent Jo Byrne, 'but to maximise the intelligence coming in so that we can do the right thing at the right time for each call.'
It is relatively early days, but results are already visible, especially in call-handling - 'one of the most critical parts of policing', according to Byrne. 'Every contact leaves a lasting impression. If we get it right here, we reassure the public, we prevent repeat calls and rework, and we create extra capacity in the system.'
That should benefit both detection and prevention, turning the circle from vicious to virtuous. The aim may be ambitious, but it's also simple.
Byrne says: 'It's a whole system, everyone is engaged in understanding the work, and the role of managers is to remove the barriers to making it better. It really is an intelligence-led system.'
Better performance, less pressure for increased resources and greater reassurance leading, at last, to public acceptance that things really are improving - elementary, my dear Watson.
The Observer, 3 April 2005