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Police require radical reform to deal with 21st century challenges

Early findings from a major review of policing reveal forces are struggling to keep pace with the changing nature of crime

Radical police reform is needed to tackle huge rise in internet crime and promote public safety, according to the interim report of a major review into policing in England and Wales.

Initial findings from the Strategic review of policing reveal that while overall crime has fallen by 70% since 1995, including a 72% drop in violent crime and a 74% fall in burglary, there has been a rapid increase in cyber-enabled fraud and computer misuse offences.

In 2019, for example, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) discovered these two types of crime represented 44% of all crime experienced in England and Wales that year, at 35.5% and 9% respectively.

“The creation of the internet and the spread of digital technology has transformed the nature of crime, creating a new venue (cyber space) in which crimes can take place,” said a report compiled on the initial findings.

“This has enormous implications for policing – in particular, for the investigation of crime and the work of digital forensic units. We were told by respondents to our Call for Evidence that the sheer volumes of data that are now potentially relevant in the course of criminal inquiries are enormous and could potentially overwhelm already stretched police units responsible for extracting evidence from digital devices.”

The report also identified Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) imagery as a major problem, commenting that the growth in online communication and social media has made it “relatively easy to access”, whereas before it was “limited to all but the most committed offenders”.

“The volume of CSA imagery online is vast (some 8.3 million unique images were added to the Child Abuse Image Database in four years to 2019) and this number is growing,” it said.

However, while figures from CSEW show crime has continued to decline overall, the report that noted there has been an increase in the number of people who believe crime is getting worse both locally and nationally since 2015, something it primarily attributes to “substantial coverage in the media” of the most serious offences.

According to the chair of the review, Michael Barber, a former partner at McKinsey who helped establish its public sector practice, there is a tension between the rise of more complex crimes and social challenges and an operating model that was built for a different time.

“Whereas in the past the police could deal relatively straightforwardly with bringing offenders to justice, they are now presented with a variety of problems, many of which require a social rather than a criminal justice solution, and most of which cannot be tackled by a single agency but require extensive collaboration,” he said.

“Cyber crime affects millions of people every year, and yet policing is not set up to deal with a world in which so much crime is committed online rather than in the public street. 

“The scale and complexity of these challenges mean we need to think radically about the role the police play, how they work with others, the skills they require and the way the police service is organised.”

Looking ahead: the next 20 years

The report also identified a number of major structural trends in society over the next two decades that are set to shape the context of public security and safety, as well as the implications of these for police services going forward.

This includes the automation of the economy, which could cause more social unrest due to higher unemployment, and an expanded and unregulated information space, which “may be more easily subject to external manipulation by malign actors”.

The latter could also have the effect of eroding state sovereignty, claims the report: “The expansion of an information space that lies outside the jurisdiction of individual states will augment the role of non-state actors, such as the social media companies and other global providers of digital infrastructure.

“If governments and law enforcement bodies are unable to effectively deal with problems such as cyber crime, it seems likely that private actors will take on more of a primary role in providing cyber security and investigating crime.”

Other trends that will affect public security and safety include climate change, shifting geo-political power balances and global resource shortages.

While the report said the police must invest in the digital tools required to operate in this new environment, it warned these must be adopted ethically and with the approval of the public.

“As they invest in new technology, police agencies will need to address, with public input, the major ethical questions that arise as a result,” it said. “These include the central question of privacy: the surveillance potential of digital technology is enormous, but how far are citizens willing to let the state intrude into their private information to keep them safe?”

However, a Freedom of Information (FoI) campaign from May 2020 found that police forces in the UK are failing to consult the public on their growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and automated decision systems (ADS).

In a report accompanying the campaign, which was conducted by the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), the organisation noted: “These technologies and their myriad uses are alien to much of the public – in 2018, RSA research found that just 9% of the public are aware that AI is being used in criminal justice.”

In its second phase, which is set to conclude in 2021, the review will look specifically at how policing needs to be reformed to meet the challenges identified in phase one.

The interim report outlines a number of key questions that phase two will focus on, including an examination of the role of police in society and how it should change; how the legitimacy of policing can be strengthened; how a public police service should be resourced; and how it should be governed and held to account.

We must demand that local politicians develop non-police solutions to the problems poor people face
Alex Vitale, Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College

“The police are funded to the tune of £12bn a year from public funds. There are other ways this money could be spent to contribute to public safety, as the recent debate about de-funding the police in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd has made clear,” it said.

“We need to be clear about what we expect the police to do to assess how effective they are in achieving it and to decide what the role of other actors and institutions should be.”

It added that despite the scale of the changes to police demand over the course of the past 20 years, “there has never been an explicit redesign of the police role”, which is something that needs to be “revisited regularly in the light of social change”.

Others, however, have questioned the efficacy of police reform, such as End of policing author Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College.

Vitale believes that the answer to solving the problems of modern policing is not spending more money on things such as training programmes, technology or oversight, but to “dramatically shrink” the functions of policing itself.

“We must demand that local politicians develop non-police solutions to the problems poor people face. We must invest in housing, employment and healthcare in ways that directly target the problems of public safety,” he said in the Guardian.

“Instead of criminalising homelessness, we need publicly financed supportive housing; instead of gang units, we need community-based anti-violence programmes, trauma services and jobs for young people; instead of school police, we need more counsellors, after-school programmes, and restorative justice programmes.”

Writing in End of policing, Vitale said: “What we really need is to rethink the role of police in society. The origin and functions of the police are intimately tied to the management of inequalities of race and class.

“The suppression of workers and the tight surveillance and micromanagement of black and brown lives have always been at the centre of policing. Any police reform strategy that does not address this reality is doomed to fail.”

The review is being hosted by UK policing think tank The Police Foundation, and is funded through charitable donations from auditing firm Deloitte, outsourcing firm CGI and crime prevention charity Dawes Trust.

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