Patrolling with a purpose

ANOTHER VIEW
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The leaked report of the Audit Commission into police patrolling merely confirms what researchers have been saying for years and what most police officers recognise: beat patrol is aimless, boring and has little impact on crime. However, the commission's belief that this arises from poor management is superficial, as are the remedies it suggests.

Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the police budget goes on patrolling. For the officers who do it, patrolling consists of hours of aimless wandering the streets, hoping that something will happen. Few seem to have any clear notion of why they patrol the places that they patrol. Their routes are usually decided on a whim. They rarely meet members of the public and prefer to patrol in pairs so they have someone to talk to. It is highly unlikely that they will make an arrest and even more unlikely that they will detect a serious crime.

The Audit Commission is correct: patrol is badly managed, but the commission's emphasis on crime-fighting is part of the problem, not the solution.

Most police work is in response to specific demands for assistance from the public. Such demands are enormously diverse, including reporting crimes, sub-criminal "trouble", and all manner of emergencies, from reporting missing children to elderly people thought to be in distress. It is this that justifies a 24-hour, mobile, generic emergency service. If police officers were devoted to intelligence-led crime-fighting duties they would be unavailable to respond to these manifold problems.

The real challenge to policy makers and managers is how to ensure good quality service for those who turn to the police in times of trouble. The police can rightly be criticised for the almost total neglect of their non crime-fighting role. Individually, officers tend to dismiss the bulk of their work as "rubbish" because it fails to conform to the spurious glamour of crime-fighting. Corporately, the police disperse their officers throughout the area and leave them to "get on with it".

Supervisory and senior officers tacitly conspire in the denigration of non-crime work by ignoring it. When officers make arrests, reports will be written and read by their superiors - it is important to "get it right". On the other hand, an officer who deals skilfully with a dispute between neighbours or defuses a confrontation is likely to receive neither recognition nor advice.

Management in the police service should be devoted to supporting and assisting officers on routine patrol to provide the highest quality of service to all those who turn to the police in times of trouble. The insistence on assessing all police work in terms of its contribution to crime-fighting will only further encourage future generations of officers to dismiss much of what they do as "rubbish".

The writer is author of 'Calling the Police', a study of routine police work.

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