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Police workforce, by worker type, March 2003 to March 2023

Making up the numbers

Mainstream discourse on police numbers neglects to ask if the officers recruited are any good?

The interesting thing about this country going to hell is not so much the destination, but the journey, and the enemies we make along the way.

I am trying to be philosophical about this government meeting its 2019 manifesto target of employing 20,000 more police officers in England and Wales, first announced in April this year, before being officially confirmed in the official figures at the end of July.

It only took them three years (and three home secretaries), but they achieved it! Incredible, given the political backdrop they’ve been up against. Legalising immoral undercover activity in the wake of the spycops scandal, the Child Q strip search scandal, the misdeeds of officer Wayne Couzens (and other alleged rapists and violent abusers), the unprofessionalism of officers involved in murder cases such as that of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, the Charing Cross WhatsApp scandal, ever more forces being placed under special measures, the frighteningly abysmal handling of COVID-19 lockdowns, lengthy reports detailing forces’ institutional racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.

But these are just minor distractions. The important thing is that they did it. Job done, case closed.

Police workforce, by worker type, March 2003 to March 2023, image from Home Office records, Table H3

Except the assumption in the Home Office’s press release that more officers equals safer streets or more a peaceful society is a nonsense when you recall that nearly 140,000 officers were on the payroll while cities burned because of their fatal incompetence during the summer of 2011. It was even higher than that during the third term of the New Labour years when police forces conducted over a million stops annually, too often for no good reason. But sure, more officers will do the trick.

I expected nothing else from the administration that brought me the Sewell report, unbidden, to gaslight my perceived notions of racism in this country. However, what confounds me is why so much mainstream discourse around the Home Office's pre-announcement back in April focused on whether they had indeed achieved the target.

At least the BBC had the decency to point out that the annual volume (and rate) of officers leaving the force is also at its highest since records began, to which some blue lives matter accounts muttered ‘blah blah healthy churn blah’.

But then again, so what? The Labour Party shadow home secretary’s response was a prime example of a crucial point lost in all the noise: Yvette Cooper seemed more interested in getting into the weeds of per capita growth than asking what we need all these officers for.

It’s not as if there is any significant correlation between crimes recorded and the numbers of officers employed. If there was, we’d all know about it, in the same way that we all could see with our own eyes how the threat of contracting COVID-19 ended many criminal activities more effectively than any chief constable could claim to.

Our officer-counting obsession says nothing about the quality of the crop selected to do the job of policing. The Daily Mail noted this a few weeks prior to the Home Office announcement when it observed that some force chiefs had ‘raided the PCSO [Police Community Support Officers] workforce’ for full-time officers in a race to reach the target, which may explain why ‘PCSO numbers had fallen drastically in recent months’.

What does this mean? Record numbers of PCSOs, whose core purpose is snitching, are being fast-tracked to gain powers well beyond their capacities. Sounds dangerous to me. But judging by police discourse, only the numbers matter. Well, if it’s quantity you want, then it is only quantity you’ll get.

However, we should be less interested in numbers for their own sake than in how the police emerged from the austerity years – when chiefs cried about staff reductions as if they were uniquely burdened – with the most generous government support of all public sector workers, despite an endless stream of high-profile scandals unmatched by any of their professional peers.

Given all this, is anyone surprised that public confidence in the force has plunged in recent years? There may be a correlation there: the more officers you have throwing their weight around abusing their ever-expanding powers, the less faith the public has in them. Sounds more plausible than any politicians' claims recently.

By Eugene K

All blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of StopWatch UK.

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