Law and Order: Police failings 'create risk of being overwhelmed': A damning report from the Audit Commission calls for greater efficiency. Terry Kirby reports

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THE POLICE face being overwhelmed by crime because they fail to use detectives effectively, become bogged down in administration and lack basic equipment such as computers and vehicles, the Audit Commission says today.

The commission's damning report says forces should switch from 'fire brigade' policing to concentrate on improved intelligence gathering, crime prevention and on sending fewer, but better trained officers to the scenes of crimes.

It says a change is needed because the police and the rest of the criminal justice system are threatened with being overwhelmed. It says: 'Police can and will need to do better if they are to break out of the vicious circle.' Entitled Helping With Enquiries: Tackling Crime Effectively, the report makes 27 recommendations for action by the Home Office, police and police authorities.

Although the commission stresses the changes are achievable within existing resources, chief constables will welcome the report as ammunition in their battle with the Home Office for more cash. John Hoddinott, Chief Constable of Hampshire and chairman of the crime committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: 'If the commission's ideas are to bear fruit, further investment in information technology for the police service is imperative.'

The commission says that although spending on police rose by 43 per cent between 1982 and 1992, crimes per officer increased from 26 to 42 in that period. Productivity of individual officers, as measured by clear-ups, has risen by 16 per cent but the rise in total crime has led to a decline in the overall clear-up rate. Only 40 per cent of police resources are devoted to crime.

The report recommends that all forces create 'crime desks' which allocate resources and handle inquiries from victims. Although a large number of forces have such a system, the commission believes many are simply 'post-boxes'. It says police should attempt to reduce the paperwork burden on officers - arrests for simple offences can require up to 40 forms to be completed.

The commission warns that extra resources created by the changes it recommends should be used properly: 'Putting more officers on foot patrol, whilst effective in terms of public reassurance, does little to improve efforts to detect crime.'

Citing initiatives like the Metropolitan Police's Operation Bumblebee, which concentrated on arresting known burglars, the report says forces should concentrate on criminals building up intelligence bases and targeting individuals.

It says too few forces have crime pattern analysis computers and those that exist are often incompatible. A commission source said some forces only paid 'lip service' to the idea of intelligence gathering - which accounts for only 1 per cent of police resources.

Although informants were described as 'the lifeblood of CID' and there was little doubt of their cost-effectiveness, the commission says the low level of use was surprising. In five forces, 43 per cent of detectives had no registered informants, 22 per cent had one and only 17 per cent had five or more.

A major source of frustration, the report says, is the lack of cars - typically the ratio is one for every six detectives - too few encrypted radios, even in specialist squads, and a lack of information technology. In some forces up to 30 officers share one computer terminal.

Helping With Enquiries: Tackling Crime Effectively. Audit Comission; HMSO; pounds 9.

Leading article, page 19

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