News analysis: Police jobs in firing line

Recent announcements from Hampshire Constabulary and Gloucestershire Police that a lack of central funding will lead to a reduction in the number of police officers have raised fears that the recession could have a widespread impact on front-line policing.

Hampshire Police intends to cut 200 jobs, including 100 officers in non-operational roles, while up to 60 front-line officer posts could go in Gloucestershire, with both forces saying these will be lost through natural wastage. Strathclyde Police has also warned it may have to reduce the number of mid-ranking officers.

According to the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, the recession has only served to exacerbate a trend towards replacing police officers with civilian staff for certain tasks traditionally carried out by officers.

“Sadly in the next year or two we’re likely to see more traditional front-line or investigative roles being undertaken by police staff and, therefore, fewer police officers being recruited,” a spokesman told Personnel Today. “But if you let police officer numbers fall, that’s the domestic resilience of this country gone if there’s a major incident,” he added.

Dorset Police is currently in the middle of a two-year process that will see 50 roles previously undertaken by police officers switch to civilian staff, and a further nine non-operational posts lost through natural wastage.

Graham Smith, the force’s HR director, believes using civilians for work that does not require police powers – such as training positions – will save money and free up additional front-line resources, but he admitted that this had proved controversial.

“People tend to focus on overall officer numbers rather than looking at the wider police family,” he said. “But we’re just restructuring and making it more cost-effective.”

Meanwhile, Angela O’Connor, chief people officer at the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), which aims to improve police technology and training, believes that while most police forces are looking to save money in the current climate, widespread front-line cutbacks are unlikely.

“Forces such as Hampshire are making difficult decisions to ensure that they protect the front line and make sure that there are officers on the streets,” she said.

“Organisations can come together across different services to share some of the transactional output and look for savings in economic terms and improvements in quality,” she added. “There’s a lot of discussion around collaboration and forces talking to each other. The HR community in policing is very strong.”

One example of this is Essex Police, which has set up a collaboration board to examine how resources such as its own helicopter could be shared across forces and be used to generate extra income. It has also recently merged its procurement function with Kent Police to give both forces greater purchasing power with suppliers. Dorset Police, meanwhile, has moved its police community support officers (PCSOs) onto annualised hours contracts to avoid having to pay overtime at busy periods.

And recruitment freezes are far from being the norm. As well as undertaking efforts to civilianise back-office posts as part of the workforce modernisation programme, Essex Police will take on an extra 100 police officers in 2009 as part of a drive to recruit 600 extra officers in the next five years, while West Midlands Police envisages creating around 90 new posts this year, including police officers, PCSOs and police staff.

Michelle Wall, head of HR at Essex Police, said: “We’re pushing the officer into the front line and the other bits are being done by professional specialists who aren’t police officers.

“That in itself makes the whole organisation a lot more efficient. It also [boosts] morale [as it] uses their skills more appropriately – the average police officer doesn’t join the police force to do anything other than policing.”

Other forces are looking to PCSOs to take some of the pressure off front-line services and even provide a talent pool for officer recruitment. West Midlands Police, for example, had 830 PCSOs and in 2008 120 of these eventually became fully qualified police officers.

And O’Connor emphasised the important role community officers had to play: “PCSOs provide an incredibly valuable role in supporting the work of the local police officers and allowing them to do the things that they’re best equipped to do. People really care about that visible and reassuring presence on the streets and that’s where PCSOs play a really valuable role.”

Yet not everyone is convinced by the trend away from the traditional police officer. The Police Federation spokesman warned: “History shows us that during recessions criminal activity increases and if it’s a depression it could be two to three years before we start to come out of it.

“During that time we’re going to see greater numbers of police staff and fewer police officers. Those police staff will not have the powers, skills, knowledge and experience to deal effectively with [the rise in criminal activity].”

The changing role of HR in policing

In the past, many HR initiatives – including the controversial workplace modernisation programme intended to make police processes more efficient – have been criticised for being overly bureaucratic and failing to consider their impact on front-line services. David Williams, director of personnel at West Midlands Police, argued that the competency framework and assessment strategies for police officers in particular have got out of hand.

Graham Smith, director of HR at Dorset Police said: “We need to go back to having systems that are simple to apply and which support operational policing,”

There are also signs that HR in policing is becoming more practical in its focus.

“A bigger part of the role now is around workforce planning,” said Smith.

“We’re looking more at where the operational need is and if the resources don’t readily exist then where we can find them and how we can satisfy that demand.”

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