Why numbers DO matter…

For the last five years the Home Secretary has consistently claimed that police numbers do not matter.  It’s not how many officers there are, its how they are deployed.  She is wrong.

Anyone with an ounce of common sense, who spends more than a moment or two thinking that through, will have realised that it is arrant rubbish.  Sadly all too many politicians and the vast majority of the media have failed to realise that and parrot her mantra as if it has been handed down on a tablet of stone.

As the UK faces the highest terrorist threat in recent years, it is time to set out the dangers that her stupidity and pig-headed stubbornness bring to the public.  She is now not only wrong but DANGEROUSLY wrong.

Starting at the beginning, it should be perfectly obvious that if a police officer, or civilian member of police staff in a support role, is doing one task they cannot simultaneously do another.  So if the phone rings in the Control Room, the next call is not going to be answered until the operator has dealt with the first one, unless they have a colleague who can do so.

And if a patrol is sent to respond to a call, they are not available to respond to another one until they have finished with the first call.  So the next call does not get dealt with until they are free, unless there is another patrol available or the first patrol abandons their first task and diverts to the next.

If an arrest is made, those officers are not free to make another arrest until they have got the suspect safely into the Custody Suite. And the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 then requires that they, or others, promptly and effectively (“expeditiously” is the word used in the legislation) deal with the prisoner so they remain in custody for the shortest possible time.  So if the officers are patrol officers there is now one less unit available to respond to the next call until they finish dealing with their prisoner.  Which may take hours and hours.

Likewise in the CID: if a detective is taking a statement from one witness, they cannot be taking a statement from another.  If they are researching one suspect, trying to identify them, where they are, possible associates and such like, they cannot be researching another.  If the crime scene examiner is examining one scene, they cannot examine the next one until they have finished, unless there is a colleague available to do it right away.

Hopefully this simple explanation has illustrated why, at the basic level, numbers DO matter.  If there are fewer officers and police staff in the various roles then fewer things get done. And those that do get done get done more slowly.

In terms of normal policing the reductions in police numbers ARE having an effect that is all too visible to serving officers and to those who understand the police service in detail.  But, thus far, they are not that visible to the public.  It takes a bit longer to answer 999 calls … but most people don’t make many so they have no idea how long they used to take, so they don’t notice.  Response times are a bit slower … but again not noticeably so because people realise that chance plays a part and some responses are slower than others anyway due to factors beyond the police’s control such as a serious incident or heavy traffic or the patrol happening to be on the opposite side of their area.

More noticeably, some calls are not getting a response when they would have done previously.  Or they are getting a delayed response instead of an immediate one.  And more crimes are being “screened out” as there is no detective available to investigate them further.  But explanations are provided to callers and victims and, again because they have nothing to compare it against, those explanations are (reluctantly) accepted.

But things really ARE worse than they were five years ago.  Quite significantly worse.  How can they be otherwise when around 18,000 police officers and about the same number again PCSOs and civilian police staff have been cut since 2005?  (There were about 143,000 police officers, 17,000 PCSOs and 83,000 civilian police staff in 2010 so that represents a cut of about 15% overall).

Yes, of course there has been some scope to make better use of technology…but an iPad doesn’t stop a fight. Or arrest a suspect. Or interview a witness. Or do all the others things which police officers have to do and for which there is simply no alternative – either a person does them or they don’t get done.

So, hopefully, you can see that numbers DO matter.  If you have ten officers or patrols you can do ten things simultaneously.  If you only have five, you can only do five and the other five either wait or simply don’t get done.

Ah!  I hear you say, but you had loads of officers and patrols hanging around waiting, doing nothing and being there just in case something happened.  Well, to a certain extent that was true. But not many and hardly any at all since about 2000.  Officers were all busy.  And if a particular officer was lazy and wasn’t too busy, it was because they were avoiding doing what they should have been doing, not because there was nothing for them to do.

Sure, some of the tasks officers were doing were less important than others…but many of those tasks were the things the public actually keep saying they want from the police.  Like neighbourhood policing. Or schools liaison. Or attending community meetings. Or keeping victims and witnesses informed of the progress of their case.  Sadly many of those things have already gone in many areas.  They will disappear entirely if the cuts continue.

I could go on, but lets now consider why numbers matter in relation to the current terrorist threat.

The police have three main roles in relation to terrorist attacks: prevention / readiness; response to attacks and investigation and prosecution of suspects.  Lets deal with each in turn:

Prevention and readiness involves a number of different aspects.  Police officers are expected to take a lead in education and deradicalisation of potential terrorist suspects. They do not do this alone, in fact they do not play the major role.  But they play a crucial role, not least in researching the background of individuals coming to notice.  They also work with communities, public service providers (such as transport operators) and other businesses to strengthen defences against attacks and prepare contingency plans for implementation should an attack happen.  And they provide high-visibility patrols at potential targets, intending to deter attacks or, at very least, to make them more difficult.

Response to attacks is perhaps the most visible role.  When an attack happens police officers will be the first to respond.  Unarmed officers can do little against “active shooter” attacks such as that in Paris, but large numbers of officers will be engaged in assisting the injured, securing scenes and facilitating and coordinating the work of the other emergency services.  Armed police officers will be required to locate, contain and challenge the attackers – if they have fled then huge numbers of officers will be engaged in the immediate manhunt to try and find them (after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in February the attackers fled and the French police mobilised 80,000, yes EIGHTY THOUSAND, armed police and military in the search.).

Investigation and prosecution may start from an attack, with a reactive investigation into the attackers, their associates, the suppliers of weapons and all the other secondary offenders who may pose a future threat even in cases where the principal offenders are dead.  Alternatively (and preferably), the investigation may be proactive, and start from intelligence received from the security services (MI5, MI6 or GCHQ) or from a member of the public or some other lead.  Whichever type of investigation it is, the resource implications are enormous.  The real world is not like TV and films whereby a few judicious clicks of a mouse bring up the suspects current location and a few more patch you in to the nearest CCTV camera.  Research takes dozens of calls to different agencies and organisations who hold information which may be of use.  Data protection and privacy laws mean (quite rightly) that even Government departments won’t supply the information until the appropriate requests and authorisations have been made in writing and have been agreed by them.  Even then some organisations will not supply information without a Court Order, which means more time consuming bureaucracy.

And, of course, research of one individual soon throws up associates, or addresses, phone numbers, vehicles or other things which then need to be researched in their own right.  Full research (and for a terrorist suspect full research is essential if future attacks are to be prevented) may take a single analyst or researcher several weeks, just for one principal suspect.

If surveillance is required, a team of at least ten or twelve surveillance officers, with a variety of vehicles and technical equipment are needed for each suspect.  If the surveillance is to be 24 hour, 7 day surveillance (and for terrorist suspects feared to be about to mount an attack it HAS to be – imagine the criticism if you put the suspect to bed at home at 10pm and come back at 6am to find he’s had an early start and has just blown up Paddington Station) then you need three surveillance teams for a single suspect (two for 12 hours overlapping shifts and one to allow the others some rest days).

If CCTV is to be viewed then yet more officer or police staff hours are required.  It is often of poor quality and / or it is unclear exactly what you are looking for.  So it can’t be viewed at double speed.  Or even normal speed.  Or even half, or quarter speed.  Much footage has to be viewed at a snails pace to avoid missing anything, with constant stops, starts and re-winds.  It is not unusual for an hour’s footage to take four hours or even more to properly view.  And you may have tens of thousands of hours of footage seized in the aftermath of an attack.

Communications data relating to the suspects is obtained and that instantly throws up another mountain of analysis and research. Imagine how many numbers you have called in the last few months – how long would it take an analyst to work their way through them, identifying who they belong to and working out the connection with you?

The scenes of attacks need to be secured and examined in minute detail – remember that the key piece of evidence in the Lockerbie plane bombing was a tiny piece of a circuit card.  Terrorist attack scenes tend to be very messy and very extensive.  Big bits of evidence are always spread over a wide area, small bits over a VERY wide area.  That takes dozens of officers days and weeks to examine in detail.  And each piece of evidence has to be painstakingly recorded, packaged and securely stored so that it’s continuity and integrity can be proven in Court in due course.

When suspects are identified they need to be detained and their premises searched.  If you have someone who has blown up dozens of people, or who is suspected of being a suicide bomber, or who has indiscriminately sprayed an AK47 around in a crowded public place you cannot just turn up at 6am, shout “Police!” very loudly and crash the door in with half a dozen cops like you might for a burglar or drug dealer.  Hundreds of hours are taken up in planning the operation in every detail.  Dozens and dozens of officers are usually required to conduct it as safely as possible.  And the fingertip search of the premises, taking apart every light fitting and looking into every void in the fabric of the building itself takes specialist officers days and days.

So dealing with terrorist incidents and investigations needs numbers of officers too.  The tasks that are required need real, live police officers and civilian police staff.  It can help them, but it simply cannot replace them.  If you have fewer officers and staff then fewer tasks get done and the list of tasks to be done takes longer.  And if there are multiple suspects to be researched, or placed under surveillance, then priorities have to be decided upon.  And some “peripheral” suspects may NEVER make it beyond initial, basic research, purely and simply because the police or the security services have run out of officers – they start with the suspects considered to be the most dangerous / likely to commit and attack imminently and work their way as far down the list as possible.  But at some point they run out of analysts and surveillance officers.  And that point is not at the bottom of the list of suspects they would ideally like to further research or put under surveillance.

Far from it, in fact.  No-one knows how many suspects there are in the UK currently plotting terrorist attacks.  But there are around 600 active investigations underway at present.  And a viable attack is being prevented every month or so.  So there’s quite a few.  Are all the suspects in all of those investigations being continuously monitored by analysts or under actual surveillance?  Well I VERY much doubt it.  I’ve no idea how many suspects can be under 24/7 at any one time with the resources currently available to the police and the security services, but I would make an informed guess at less than 250.  And how many can be actively monitored (i.e. real time monitoring of communications, etc)? Significantly more, but we know that only around 3,000 interception of communications warrants (allowing actual ‘tapping’ of the content of communications) are issued each year and I would expect active monitoring to include interception, so 3,000 at most (and don’t forget a single investigation may involve several interception warrants for different phone numbers).

So, hopefully you can see why numbers matter in relation to the terrorist threat too.  If there are fewer officers and staff then fewer proactive investigations are undertaken and those that are are progressed more slowly.  This means that it is more likely that an attack gets through.

And when an attack gets through, fewer police officers (and especially fewer armed police officers) means that the response is slower and the public are at more risk for longer.  And the investigations into those attacks take longer and so other potential suspects have longer to escape or even mount further attacks.

So, Mrs May, you are plainly and simply wrong.  If you genuinely believe that numbers do not matter and fewer officers can do the same tasks just as well if deployed “properly” then you are, quite frankly, a deluded idiot.  If your advisors are telling you that they are lying and you should get rid of them. And if you know everything I have just explained and you are telling the public that numbers do not matter because that fits in with your determination to cut the police service even further, then you are lying to them and you should resign.

One of the primary duties of a Government is ensuring the safety of the public.  And by cutting and cutting at the police service Mrs May, you are utterly failing in that duty.

(PS I know you and your Government are FAR more worried about protecting our “economy” rather than our “society”, so perhaps have a think about how terrorist attacks would impact on that?  How much inward investment would the UK attract if it were in flames?  How many jobs would be created by organisations bombed out of existence?  If you can’t bring yourself to do it for the people, maybe do it for the pound notes…)

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2 thoughts on “Why numbers DO matter…

  1. An excellent, if rare (for you), account of what life is like in the real world Peter. IF, and you know I don’t agree, numbers are irrelevant to Mrs May and her psychophants, why is that every time there’s an emergency of any kind, the first response is “We will increase Policing in the area, we will put more officers on the streets”. I thought numbers made no difference, it was how you used them intelligently made the difference. Moving them aeound just creates a void somewehere else, and extended shifts and Cancelled Rest Days just leaves officers exhausted and frustrated, plus an immense amount of Rest Days to be taken at some time in the future.

    There is only one long term solution, Peter is quite right, stop cutting the numbers like it doesn’t matter. It DOES matter, and Peter has laid that out perfectly.

  2. Any excellent piece Peter. I feel though that even after the weekends events this will be ignored. What is they say “Never confuse me with the facts” Keep on fighting mate. Barney.

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