999 crisis threatens bobby on the beat

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Crime Correspondent

Police officers could soon be too busy to walk the beat unless changes are made to the existing patrol system, which is badly managed and ineffective, according to an Audit Commission report published today.

The problem has been exacerbated by unrealistically high public expectations and misuse of the 999 emergency system. The independent Commission says the police service is at a crossroads. Its report, Streetwise - Effective Police Patrol, says that patrol officers are being used too often in a "firefighting" role, reacting to emergencies which are often wasted trips.

The Commission says there is an almost insatiable public appetite for visible patrol, which absorbs about 60 per cent of police resources at an annual cost of pounds 4bn.

The report concludes that with only one officer on the streets for every 8,000 people, having a bobby on every street corner is not realistic.

The number of constables whose main duty is foot patrol varies from 23 per cent to one per cent.

Street patrols, adds the Commission, do not have much impact on serious crime such as burglary, although well-directed patrolling does reduce street crime and vandalism.

Analysis of one control room in a town centre found that on average a patrol officer made an arrest only once in every four eight-hour shifts.

The study of 16 forces in Britain, including the Metropolitan Police and the Greater Manchester force, provided a mixed picture, with only one in three believed to be following "best practice".

Part of the reason is inadequate decision-making in the control room at some forces, the Commission believes . Many incidents are wrongly graded as emergencies. The proportion of in different forces ranges from about one per cent of all calls to 36 per cent.

The Commission, which is responsible for ensuring value for money from public services, also highlights a dramatic rise in 999 calls of 150 per cent since 1980, including inquiries about football scores and late night chemists.

The report, as revealed earlier this month in The Independent, suggests setting up a new 333 information line to lighten the load on police control rooms. The public should also be told, possibly through an advertising campaign, when the 999 service should be used.

The Commission also suggests making greater use of existing resources, including paying volunteer Special Constables to carry out more patrol work.

Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, said the report was an important contribution to the debate on patrolling, but rejected the notion that the public had unrealistic expectations. "This is a patronising approach which owes more to the desire to cut costs than reassure citizens," he said.

Keith Povey, chief constable of Leicester, speaking on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said there were many positive suggestions in the study, but that a large number had serious implications for police resources.