Bobbies on the beat are disappearing from swathes of the country and being replaced by community support officers and unpaid special constables, an official report has found.
The officers who traditionally pounded the streets, talking to residents and businesses, are now also required to carry out investigations and respond to 999 calls.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary warned on Thursday that budget cuts risk “eroding” neighbourhood policing where the constables on the ground prevent crime and provide reassurance.
It said that stretched forces are struggling to find £2.4 billion of savings, leading to PCSOs and “specials” becoming the mainstay of patrols in many areas.
However, the warning came as official figures showed overall crime in England and Wales had fallen to its lowest level since 1981, suggesting that the reduced numbers patrolling the streets were not having a detrimental effect.
PCSOs have been controversial since their introduction over a decade ago by David Blunkett, then home secretary. Critics of so-called “plastic bobbies” warned from the start that they would replace much more expensive, fully trained Pcs.
Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis, the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales, warned on Thursday that budget cuts could sound the death knell for the much-loved traditional community police officer.
She said: “I have a genuine fear, and it is supported by this report, that as we move towards the end of the current spending review period and look forward to the next one, neighbourhood policing will become the victim of significant cuts and in some areas will be lost altogether.
“Whilst I’m sure that no chief constable will want this to happen, I believe it is inevitable with the financial challenges they face.
“We cannot let the service evolve to one where all the public see are officers racing from one emergency call to the next. Policing in this country means much more than that and chief constables need to make some difficult decisions to prevent this from happening.”
The inspectorate found that forces are extending the remit of PCSOs, who now attend incidents for which they have not been fully trained, to cover for warranted officers diverted to emergencies.
The report said that local warranted officers were being required to perform tasks, such as responding to 999 calls and criminal investigations, that were previously carried out by specialist teams. It said: “Officers therefore may still be described, and officially counted, as neighbourhood officers, but are actually doing much wider policing work. As a result, PCSOs – who do not have warrants, and therefore, for instance, cannot make arrests – are now the mainstay of community policing in some areas.” Some warranted officers told inspectors: “We don’t do the walking and talking any more.”
HM Inspector of Constabulary Zoe Billingham warned that forces risked ending up reacting to crime instead of trying to prevent it. “Neighbourhood policing in our view is the cornerstone of the British policing model. It is not a ‘nice to have’,” she said.
Sir Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, said: “There is a serious concern that, as the number of staff reduces, we lose our capacity to do preventive and proactive work.”
Steve Finnigan, the Chief Constable of Lancashire Constabulary, who speaks on performance management for the Association of Chief Police Officers, added: “Acpo is concerned that more is being asked of neighbourhood officers, sometimes drawing them from preventive policing in order to preserve essential front-line response services.”
Steve Williams, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, predicted that replacing warranted beat bobbies with PCSOs would ultimately lead to a rise in crime.
“I think the majority of the public would agree that there is no substitute for a fully fledged police officer,” Mr Williams said.
“I envisage that we will see an increase in crime figures – that deterrent aspect will not be there.”
PCSO numbers are expected to fall by 17 per cent over the five years of this parliament, to reach 14,000 in 2015, leaving those who remain forced to work longer hours and patrol on their own rather than in pairs.
Meanwhile, the number of volunteer special constables is planned to increase by 60 per cent to 24,800.
In Bedfordshire, one of the smallest constabularies, neighbourhood policing is now largely carried out by PCSOs, the inspectorate found.
Because of its small size, the force was singled out by HMIC as one of five in England and Wales that will find further budget cuts after 2015 particularly difficult to cope with.
The Government has recently shifted its position on the merging of smaller forces, with Damian Green, the policing minister, saying this month that he had “nothing against” the idea if it is supported by the elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and the local community.
But Tom Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, stressed yesterday that mergers were “not inevitable”. “It really depends on the PCCs,” he added.
A Home Office spokesman said: “This government’s reforms are working – these crime figures show crime is down by more than 10 per cent under this government. Victim satisfaction is up and the proportion of police officers on the frontline has risen.
“But while the HMIC report shows police forces rising to the challenge of improving services while cutting costs, it also shows there is scope to go further.
“We are playing our part by creating a £50 million innovation fund to boost force collaboration and developing the Police ICT Company to improve technology. It is now for police leaders, working with the College of Policing, to carry on driving improvements on behalf of the public they serve.”
News published on: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/10189323/Police-too-busy-to-walk-the-streets-and-prevent-crime.html