UK: BIM Sounding Board - JUDGING THE POLICE SERVICE. - Finding measures which can provide a more just appraisal of performance is the challenge facing the police today, writes Richard Wells.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Finding measures which can provide a more just appraisal of performance is the challenge facing the police today, writes Richard Wells.

Gauging the effectiveness of the police was once quite simple. A crime was committed, a crime was reported, police attempted to solve it and their success was the determinant of their merit. It is certainly not so now.

And yet there are enthusiasts for empirical data - encouragingly bright people - who seem inextricably locked into simplicity. Their enthusiasm is supported by the media who, aided and abetted by researchers, feel compelled to repeat the empty litany year on year: reported crime is up, police detection rate is down. Hold your breath and count to 10 and you can hear the inevitable argument coming round the corner, "What's gone wrong with the police?"

So much more needs to be understood by everyone about the relationship between crime committed, crime reported and the police role in tackling it. And that's just crime. More chapters of explanation on traffic, public disorder, and property services could usefully follow.

Society doesn't know how much crime is committed, though victim surveys suggest substantial under-reporting (estimates vary between a factor of four and 10). Nor do we much understand what gets a crime brought into the record books, though we can assume that the pressure of insurance companies, the availability of telephones, the siting of police stations, the approachability of police officers, police policies and media interest are all influential.

Let me sketch out our dilemma. A domestic murder occurs. The width of the statistics columns will record, typically, one crime and one clear-up. Cheers for a 100% record. Another murder occurs, this time the capricious killing of a drunken vagrant. In police terms this is a "sticker" of a case, with not much hope. The detection rate drops to 50%. Both these cases occupy many man-hours, one in case preparation, the other in investigation. The raw statistics say nothing of this.

At the other end of the scale, a house door or car window left open ease the work of the opportunist thief. As against 80-90% success rate with serious crimes, most of the "failure" of the police is at this end, where a theft occurs within seconds and there is no trace left. The chances of a curious neighbour seeing something is slight and the chance of that neighbour reporting something is still slighter.

The crimes will be reported. The time spent following up a possible suspect, or the supportive "cuppa" with an anxious victim - none of this will reach the evaluation columns. Bottom lines rule.

The service is treated as if it had a simple product: a successful investigation. Its symbolic role is overlooked.

A patrolling constable passes the scene of a burglary (without detecting it) and estimated once every eight years. This provides no logical basis for putting out more constables - the constant political pressure. But the peacefully patrolling constable is an icon - providing reassurance to a public whipped up into believing that society as we knew it, has collapsed.

Certainly the constable will deter minor acts of vandalism and other opportunist crime. But the officer's function here is to be available and approachable, to be a referee and arbiter, guide and counsellor. None of this is measured; some is beyond reasonable measurement. Activity analysis will provide some quantification but will not tap the "affective domain" of feelings which is generated by the officer's presence.

That presence itself is complex. The sight of a constable standing still will be reassuring to one person, but a waste of money to another. If he runs, reassurance is replaced by anxiety. If he speeds by in a car, he is variously described as "impersonal" or a "godsend" to the caller at the destination of his journey.

We require the constable to be the "thinking pragmatists" - courageous enough to take prompt action, yet sensitive enough to temper the official role with the human aspect. Action-oriented, most officers called to deal with a potential suicide threatening to jump from a 60ft-gantry would be 30 feet up and climbing before thoughts of personal safety occured. Later in the same tour of duty, the same officer could be counselling a family bereaved by accident or crime. Strangely, neither of these events would hit the "output" statistics, yet each is an enormous consumer of physical and mental input.

The police service is now faced with a battery of performance measures. The earlier cry was for "economy, efficiency and effectiveness" - with, in a climate where finance drives strategies, the emphasis on economy. The cry is now for unit efficiency. I have no quarrel with these in a tax-borne service, but what of "effectiveness": the meeting of goals which we now formulate with our customers? They are understanding people, who know about shortage of manpower and goodwill. Surveys show that they want a police service which is reasonably prompt, reasonably effective and unfailing courteous.

The challenge for me, and my colleagues, is to find a series of measures which gauge the quality - not just the width. Meanwhile, life goes on and we need to act now, more intuitively, to give service standards a fit. We have framed a six-point "horizon" allowing for flexibility of style, but in which standards are non-negotiable. Critical to everything is the way we treat each other. Quality begins at home.

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