With the Met facing a period of belt tightening, Thursday's budget committee convened to take evidence from academics and former senior officers. Providing their take on policing in the age of austerity were professors Betsy Stanko and Marion Fitzgerald, Dr Tim Brain who was formerly chief constable of Gloucestershire and Bernard Hogan-Howe, a former chief constable of Merseyside and now Her Majesty's Inspector of Policing for London. A strong line up with strong opinions.
At 33,000 warranted officers plus 5,000 PCSOs, the Met is now a larger force than at any time in its history. The period from 2000 has seen unprecedented growth from a base of 26,000 officers, built on an injection of cash that is just not sustainable any longer. The key question is how to reduce resources without allowing crime to rise.
The introduction of neighbourhood policing has created a visible presence with PCs and PCSOs patrolling even the smaller shopping centres and residential areas. They rarely encounter crimes in progress but there is a deterrent effect and the sight of uniformed officers reduces the fear of crime. Fear of Crime is significant because it discourages people, particularly women and older people, from venturing out of their homes and in the worst cases effectively imprisons them behind closed doors.
However the attachment of teams to council wards led to some inefficient allocation of resources. Some wards are very quiet, with low crime, but they still get a - not very busy - neighbourhood team. And many ward boundaries run down high streets, creating an impractical division between the policing teams on each side of the street.
An alternative is being explored in Manchester. There crime mapping - which we have in London - is used to identify 'hot spots' and teams of officers are focused on these locations. Clearly this is better use of resources but it runs the danger of displacing crime to other locations. Possible 'hot spots' include town centres, problem estates and transport nodes.
Bernard Hogan-Howe made the obvious point that policing should follow the people, targeting stations during commuting time and town centres in the evening, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays.
During his time at Merseyside Mr Hogan-Howe identified his key priorities as improving detection rates, reducing anti social behaviour, and improving the telephone interface with the public. The last of these, providing a quick response to emergency calls and a swift answer to non emergency calls, meant that the provision of police stations could be reviewed. Having an effective switchboard was a cost effective alternative to providing staffed front desks which saw less use as technology improved.
He also felt that there should be more single patrolling by officers in low risk areas, stating "If a PC can't walk alone in a area then who can?". The practice of PCSOs patrolling in groups of up to eight also needed to end.
Priorities for Savings
The obvious areas were suggested - overtime is too high in London, the MPA reserves are higher than necessary, back office functions have also grown since 2000 and need to be streamlined.
Economies of scale were also possible. At present every London borough has its own commander and HQ, but is that necessary? Councils are looking at sharing services across boundaries and the police could do the same. There are also a large number of specialist units, for example the wildlife crime unit, the antiques crime unit, etc. These are important but they could be combined to some extent, making savings on support services.
Bureaucracy had also ballooned since 1997, with demands for statistics and targets to achieve. Forms have to be completed when tasers, CS spray and even breathalysers are used - are these all still necessary? And what about the infamous stop and search forms that officers are required to complete? It was acknowledged that the Met had made good progress in reducing costs in its finance and IT departments but other parts of the organisation had room to be more efficient.
One thing the witnesses did agree on was that it is all but impossible to produce a credible measurement of front line policing effectiveness. Crime levels are affected by many other factors and lower level measurements may be accurate but lack relevance. The committee's search for a simple way of measuring policing is starting to look like the quest for the Holy Grail.