One of the reasons that academics have had such difficulty in determining the most efficient size and scale of a police force is the degree to which police forces are vertically integrated. We are used to each of our 43 police forces, under the hierarchical control of a Chief Constable (The Met is a special case) and with detective and CID branches that may have specialist sub-squads dealing with drugs or counter terrorism, a traffic division, armed response units, specialist operational functions that may include scenes-of-crime, armourers, procurement and stores and vehicle maintenance and back office functions including HR, finance, payroll, pension administration, media communications and PR.
And one of the problems we have in discussing the structure and composition of policing is that there is always an implicit assumption that this degree of vertical integration is how it must be. Thus those who argue for larger national or regional police forces inevitably do so on the basis of claimed efficiencies in back office and specialist operational support services. But why should the key part of the police service most valued and wanted by the public that owns it, local policing, be dragged into the hubristic empire-building of ambitious senior officers?
One of tensions at the heart of the long struggle between Whitehall and Town Hall for control of policing are two very different views of what the UK's police forces should do. One the one hand we want local policing, community building, informal dispute and disturbance resolution, reinforcement of the Little Platoons and the ears of sworn constables attuned and receptive to the concerns and priorities of citizens. On the other hand Whitehall fears an ever-present danger of chaos, anarchy, terrorism, major incidents, fire, flood, disease and strikes, and even more than such events themselves it fears its own inability to deal with them. Whitehall therefore wants a large, flexible, mobile force with existing command and communications structures as closely under the control of the Home secretary as possible to be deployed to maintain the well-being and security of the State.
If we accept that both ambitions are to some extent legitimate, we must ask how, or even if, they can both be achieved without a duplication of resources. Can we integrate and amalgamate the back-office and specialist operational functions? Can we regionalise and specialise counter-terrorism policing and detective work for indictable offences such as rape that needs particular skills and resources? Can we roll out integrated communication systems and secure mobile information access that can serve a local beat copper both when on his rounds and when he's called upon to police football crowds in the nearest city?
But above all, can we return local policing to being local policing, immune from the woke fads, promotion obsessions and box-checking of ambitious middle-ranking managers? Under the democratic direction (but not operational control) of watch committees, elected bodies and even lay magistrates?
Policing is broke. It needs fixing. It is simply not acceptable that the police no longer respond to reports of non-indictable offences. It is even less acceptable that the organisational and management failures that allowed the systemic child sexual abuse of thousands of young girls in our town and cities are permitted to continue.