As I sit and write this, I can actually see my breath in front of me. I have singularly failed to get the maintenance people to turn the radiators on in my office for the past month, meaning that every day people make excuses to leave my meetings early, rather than subject themselves to the arctic conditions that I have to endure. (At least that’s what they tell me.)
I was therefore amused to read the comments of the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw over the weekend, saying that some officers would rather sit in warm police stations than go out and catch criminals http://bit.ly/8OD5op. I wondered if my radiator problem was the direct result to a new Home Office policy to freeze officers out onto the streets!
In all seriousness, I was really surprised by the language that Jack Straw used. He is after all a former Home Secretary, and current Justice Secretary. He has been at the heart of Government for 12 years. Is this honestly what he thinks about police officers?
I would be the first to acknowledge that there are some lazy police officers around, just as there are lazy teachers, doctors and council officials. ( It cannot have escaped his attention recently that there are a number of politicians facing some difficult questions about their productivity and expenses!) The vast majority of police officers however are committed to arresting criminals and keeping people safe. I can personally testify that nothing makes officers feel better than a catching an offender in the act, and making a positive arrest.
I understand the point that Jack Straw was trying to make, that performance varies around the country between forces, and that the worst performers will blame bureaucracy rather than do something about it. To my mind however, this is over simplifying the problem. Every area faces different problems, and socio-economic challenges, which require forces across the country to use different methods and techniques to resolve. Blunt performance measurements can never hope to capture the complex nature of policing different communities.
At the heart of Jack Straw’s comments was a refusal to acknowledge the layers of bureaucracy that exist within the legal system. Having operated at the front line of that system for the majority of my career, I can assure Mr Straw that this is not something made up or exaggerated by officers, but a very real issue. Most police officers that I know would prefer to do anything other than fill out paperwork. They do not like being in the station, under the scrutiny of senior officers. They would much rather be out on the streets locking up criminals and keeping people safe. I have often had to nag officers to come in off patrol and complete a file for court, crime report or missing persons papers.
Paperwork is a by product, generated as a result of the level of scrutiny that officers find themselves under. Every arrest must be justified, every search documented, every item of property seized must be booked in and logged. Failure to complete the requisite paperwork means that officers can find themselves exposed at court, in legal proceedings or in a disciplinary hearing. This article from the Times online sets out the layers of paperwork following arrest better than I could hope to http://bit.ly/8k82VH
There seems to be an industry of scrutineers and regulators across the public sector. They all require performance reports, complex levels of data and regular updates on compliance with the latest directive. This stuff does not just appear out of thin air, it is generated by officers filling out paperwork. There is no point politicians pretending the problem does not exist, to a large extent it is of their making. When Jack Straw was Home Secretary, he would have had the opportunity to have impacted on bureaucracy, but I cannot recall any startling reductions under his lead.
I really hope that the debate that has been generated since Jack Straw’s comments leads to a further examination and reduction of bureaucracy, but I cannot help but feel that until politicians trust public servants, rather than relying on batallions of bean counters to reassure them, we will not make a great deal of progress.