Police on the beat 'in need of reform'

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The Independent Online
Fundamental changes are needed to improve the job of police officers on the beat, along with an alternative 999 emergency line, an Audit Commission study has concluded.

But an earlier draft of the commission's report, that was highly critical of police patrolling, has been toned down after complaints from chief constables.

A leaked copy of the draft report was greeted with anger in October by police, who believed the study was too negative about beat officers.

However, the final version, which will be published on 29 February, is understood to point still to serious weaknesses in the present system of patrolling, which costs pounds 4bn a year in England and Wales.

It will say that although the main duty of 60 per cent of officers is patrolling, only 5 per cent are on the beat at any one time. Public expectation is unrealistically high and management should be improved.

It suggests setting up an alternative 333 police telephone line, to provide information, alongside the existing 999 service, which is being overwhelmed with non-emergency calls. The report also says that the status of bobbies on the beat is low and needs to be enhanced. Briefings, debriefing, and shift patterns in some forces need to be improved.

The Commission, however, is expected to be more positive about many of the police's patrolling functions, and to conclude that some forces are doing well, while others are not.

It is understood to stress that only 5 per cent of police are on patrol because many officers are involved in other duties, such as court cases, or are sick. They also say that public satisfaction is often low in areas where the police concentrate their efforts because these are regions in which crime is high. The report says that public demand has increased hugely and that police cannot meet expectations.

It says the 999 system needs looking at because it found that well over half the calls are not emergencies. In some forces, only 30 per cent were urgent matters and in many cases people rang for information or because they could not get through to their local police station. The report suggests the Home Office ought to publicise clear guidelines for use of the 999 service by the public.

Police argued the draft was negative and dwelled on bad aspects, rather than the best practices already in place.They said the language used was "unhelpful" and not enough credit was given to improvements.

A source said: "They now point out more of the good aspects and are less negative. It's more constructive. The tone has changed."

The Commission denied it had watered down any parts of the report under police. A spokesman said: "In the natural course of things drafts undergo significant changes during consultation. We take consultation seriously and listen to the feedback. You would expect changes."

He added: "At the end of the consultation process we make our own decisions - we don't bow to pressure."

Ian Westwood, the vice-chairman of the Police Federation, said: "Patrolling has not got enough resources to satisfy public demand. We believe extra resources are needed."

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