Police forces 'accept cuts will mean losing officers'

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The Independent Online

Police forces accept that they will have to lose officers as part of the Government's austerity drive, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers said today.

But Sir Hugh Orde said that in order to maintain frontline policing, officers must be released from some of the constraints imposed by legislation over recent years, and given more freedom to use their own discretion in response to incidents - even if this means that sometimes things go wrong.

He welcomed indications from Home Secretary Theresa May that she is ready to reverse innovations introduced by the former Labour administration, such as anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) and 24-hour drinking.

Speaking on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show, Sir Hugh said that round-the-clock licensing was a "mistake", while Asbos had been "a mixed bag" which worked in some cases, but not in others.

He repeated his insistence that reforms to the oversight of police forces planned by Ms May must not impinge on operational independence, and said chief constables would have to "work very closely" with new elected commissioners to ensure that they do not pursue a populist agenda of getting bobbies on the beat without bearing in mind the other work the police do.

A recent report suggested that only one out of every 10 police officers is available at any time to tackle crime, sparking calls for desk-bound officers to be cut to shift resources to the front-line.

But Sir Hugh said that the officers classed as working at their desks included murder squads and units tackling terrorism and organised crime, as well as traffic cops.

He said: "Chief constables are working day in day out to cut out any fat in the system. We have been doing that for many years.

"We have to recognise that some officers my have to go, but people in offices solve very dangerous and serious crime and bring very dangerous people to justice."

Asked if anti-terror units might face cuts, he said that the head of counter-terrorism John Yates had said he would have to take some of the brunt of cost reductions.

"His determination is, like mine, to keep people safe and deal with the most serious end of the business, as well as the local."

Sir Hugh welcomed Ms May's assurance that her reforms will not compromise chief constables' operational independence.

But he raised the prospect that elected commissioners would respond to voter pressure by placing excessive emphasis on the work done by police on the streets, to the detriment of less visible activities.

"We will have to work very closely with them so they understand the complexity of our world and don't just go down the local, attractive, agenda, and realise that we have cops doing all sorts of things," he said.

Ms May last week announced a review of licensing legislation, saying that the promised benefits of liberalisation had failed to materialise.

Sir Hugh made clear he would like to see controls tightened: "I think 24-hour drinking, frankly, was probably a mistake. The culture in the UK is different to that in other parts of Europe where it is far less threatening and far more successful.

"We have to take that legislation away.

"I would welcome the notion that if we have longer licensing hours, the people making the money pay for some of the policing that has to be put in place to keep those people safe when they are under the influence of alcohol."

Asbos had been "a mixed bag", said Sir Hugh.

"Most people stop behaving badly because of interaction with the police before we get to Asbo level," he said.

"We may not need Asbos to do that. I would put in the freedom of frontline officers to make decisions in the world in which they live. They may have to work with housing, with health or with education."

In many European countries, anti-social behaviour was dealt with as a social problem rather than a policing issue requiring legislation, he said.

"Over the years, we have constrained policing and put so much policy into place," he said.

"We need to free up that system and create a broad framework in how we operate and let the officer just get on with the job at the local end of the business.

"Officers use their judgment every day of the week... That is not different. What is different is the clear leadership from the top, and my association in particular, to say we will support you when sometimes issues don't go according to your plan and in the real world of policing things do go wrong."