Policing a COVID-19 world

August 05, 2020

by Andrew Newsham National Lead for Policing

Email +44 (0)7850 516169

As a nation we are at an inflection point. The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to be a catalyst for change in many aspects of our economy and our society. While lockdown has presented operational challenges to policing in the short term, to what extent will the profession use this crisis as a catalyst to transform?

As the UK emerges from lockdown, the Government needs to balance the imperative to rebuild the economy with a stark public funding challenge that will necessitate hard choices about our national priorities. To rebuild successfully, the UK must be a safe, secure and stable environment, where the public can confidently go about their lives and businesses can thrive and prosper. This brings an urgent need to address the pressures on the policing system.

The challenges are simply too big and numerous for law enforcement leaders to rely on fragmented, tactical responses. The headwinds that will greet the service as it emerges from lockdown are too strong. Among the pressures are:

  • Police funding, at the start of 2020, seemed in a better place than for many years. However, while pay rises of 2.5% and an uplift of 20,000 officers are basically good news for policing, the sector still has to compete for funding against other public services. Many would argue COVID just made the funding case for the likes of health, social services and infrastructure much stronger relatively. Add to that the economic headwinds created by the pandemic and it’s clear there will be no let up for forces’ funding.
  • Trust and fairness have moved more firmly to centre stage as society’s views are evolving quickly in this area. With this comes greater scrutiny around the relationship between the police and communities, and in particular black communities. Layer on to this economic uncertainty and rising unemployment, and it's easy to see a more febrile mood on the streets adding to frontline policing challenges.
  • The nature of offending has changed during lockdown. Forces have responded to an increase in crimes like domestic abuse and a proliferation of COVID-19 related online fraud, while new COVID-19 related laws have required officers to exercise finely balanced judgement in enforcing them. As lockdown eases, many of these new patterns will persist, while traditional demand, temporarily suppressed by lockdown, will resurface.
  • A backlog of cases in courts due to the pandemic are building in the justice system. The HM Crown Prosecution Services Inspectorate’s June report highlights the growing backlog in Magistrate and Crown Courts and raises concerns about its detrimental impact to justice. Clearing this backlog will inevitably ramp up pressure on the police and the whole criminal justice system.
  • Maintaining workforce wellbeing has always been mission critical however, COVID-19 has made this harder. The possibility of police personnel contracting the virus at the front line has its most obvious risk in short-term operational resilience. But the mental health pressures faced by individuals in this environment are significant. And for the rest of the workforce, the mental health issues associated with prolonged periods of home/remote working are increasingly requiring employers to go to even greater lengths to take care of their people and build resilience in their services.

The combination of these factors leads us to the conclusion that policing is going to have to do more, do it differently, and in all likelihood do it with no additional money in real terms in the future.

To respond, policing leaders must enhance how the policing system operates as a whole. Momentum, which nudged the Service closer together, through initiatives driving consistency and improving the basis for collaboration across forces was growing prior to COVID-19. Given today’s context, our view is that this momentum needs to accelerate, and to coalesce around four themes that require decisive action now:

  1. Creating capacity by enhancing performance and productivity: forces must go deeper to understand what drives effective performance. Our recent work in child safeguarding yielded significant performance improvements. Performance improvement needs a robust evidence base, which links policing activity to public safety outcomes. And it needs sustained and applied leadership to see change through. As a first action, we believe forces should focus on rapidly improving the productivity of complex and resource intensive capabilities e.g. safeguarding, gangs and domestic abuse. Gains of 10 to 15% are reasonable targets.
  2. Building the case for police funding: The national grant and local precepts are under pressure from the economic impact of COVID-19. With the starting gun now fired on the next Spending Review, the sector needs to develop a clear narrative on its funding needs. Avoiding fragmented messages from individual forces undermining the coherence of policing’s overall investment case to the Government is key. Competing sectors have historically suffered less from this. In parallel policing needs to demonstrate a relentless focus on efficiency and a rigorous approach to defining priorities so resources are aligned to greatest need. Leveraging the huge amount of effort channelled into transformation over the last five years, NPCC and APCC have an opportunity to be bold and offer a unified Spending Review position for policing within the next six weeks.
  3. A shared digital future for policing: Technology has, during lockdown, proven beyond doubt its ability to transform the world of work. COVID-19 must be an accelerator to both common digital platforms for policing and wholesale adoption of digital tools. To truly enable policing, the digital convergence of forces and the upskilling officers and staff must be sped up. We encourage forces to rapidly scale the roll out of digital skills and drive adoption of digital tools to realise their investments to date and create clarity about where next for the digital agenda.
  4. Leveraging networks, partnerships and the public: Given the pressure that all public and third sector organisations will be under, the necessity is for police forces to deepen the value of collaborations with Local Authorities, Fire and Rescue, Health and Criminal Justice partners. Financially it is the right thing to do - robust partnerships leverage public resources and target problems at a systemic level. We believe forces, and their partners, can and need to drive more from these relationships. But, we also think policing needs to be more innovative, ideas like ‘crowdsolving’ such as Burgernet in the Netherlands taps into the public's willingness to help and provide a Crimewatch for today at scale.

It is this final point that should give the greatest cause to be optimistic. Despite all the challenges, policing in the UK draws its legitimacy from its consent based model and enjoys high levels of trust and support from the public. It is this bedrock on which the police can play their important role of delivering a safe, secure and stable environment.

by Andrew Newsham National Lead for Policing

Email +44 (0)7850 516169