Standardisation and better use of technology to cut red tape could put the equivalent of 3,000 bobbies on the beat, Sir Ronnie Flanagan told MPs this week (26 February).
Flanagan was giving evidence to the Home Affairs select committee following publication of his final report reviewing policing in the UK.
Flanagan said he was staggered by the increase in the bureaucratic burden compared to 30 years ago when he was on the beat. Not only was more documentation of every incident required, but 70% of it had to be re-entered at least once. Simply standardising documentation and purchasing across the 43 UK police forces would be a big step forward, he said.
Flanagan said the total cost of equipping a police officer with mobile information technology such as PDAs, cellphones, digital cameras and laptop computers for five years was between £3,000 and £6,500 per officer.
"This cost would be driven down if we took a more joined up approach to the introduction of business processes enabled by new technologies," he said.
He said one force reported PDAs had helped save nearly an hour per officer per day, while another found that digital cameras had helped cut time spent on paperwork and preparing files by one-fifth.
He said several forces had cut duplicate data entry for stop-and-search incidents using mobile technology. Others had changed their crime reporting systems to pre-populate crime report forms, saving officers time and repeat data entries.
Flanagan said police were generally keen to use new technologies. But this was done piece-meal. "For instance, new databases are constantly being introduced, none of which currently links across forces," he said.
He said there was still a long way to go. "We have yet to make the progress that is required to reduce bureaucracy by standardising forms and data sets," he said.
He also called for officers to be given more latitude in exercising their professional discretion when dealing with non-serious incidents as a way to cut red tape.
Although reluctant to comment on merging police forces, he estimated that the optimum size of a police force was 6,000. He said many existing forces had fewer officers.