Police Cuts – What is a Front Line Officer?

policeman07:37 Wednesday 30th March 2011
Peterborough Breakfast Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: What is a police officer? As police forces have their numbers axed, there’s a debate over what is a front line police officer. In Cambridgeshire we’re being told front line policing will be protected. But what is it? Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary has done a study into the definition, and Zoe Billingham is the HM Inspector for the Eastern Region. Morning Zoe.
PAUL STAINTON: What is a policeman?
ZOE BILLINGHAM: What’s a front line policeman Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: Same thing isn’t it?
ZOE BILLINGHAM:Well yes. It may seem like a common-sense question to most of your listeners, but actually it’s really important, because there’s a lot of debate going around at the moment with police, like many other public services, having to make really significant cuts. And lots of forces are making commitments to their public about protecting the front line. But the front line actually means different things to different people. So we were asked to look at, well, what is the definition of the front line? Let’s be clear about it. And then let’s have an informed debate on the cuts, and where they may fall. And let’s talk in a language that the public can understand. So, what’s a front line officer? Well it’s fairly obvious. It’s the officers that your listeners will see on the street, day in, day out. It’s those that are the blue light response, it’s the neighbourhood teams, but it’s also detectives. It’s people that turn up at houses, the scene of crime officers, to take the fingerprints, and it’s also people who aren’t actually out there on the streets, but are taking calls from the public to help them to keep them safe, and to help enforce law and order. So that may seem very complicated, but what we said is about two thirds of the police workforce overall are on the front line. They’re available day in, day out, to help and assist the public.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. And your definition of course will then be used by chiefs of police to help get rid of people, and substantiate the fact that, no, no, no, we’re getting rid of people, but they’re not front line police officers, because look, they don’t fit into this category.
ZOE BILLINGHAM:You know Paul that isn’t really the case. And I’ve just been spending the last two months of my life going round forces in my area to talk through how the cuts are going to fall within the local areas. And Cambridgeshire, like many other forces that fall within my region, are doing absolutely all that they can to be more efficient ..
PAUL STAINTON: But they’ll use your definition to justify the cuts and qualify them, won’t they?
ZOE BILLINGHAM:Well actually that’s not what we’re seeing. What we’re seeing is forces saying we’re here to serve the public. We’re here to provide the best service we can, 24/7, 365 days of the year. How can we best organise the workforces that we have, in order to be able to do that? How can we look at doing things more efficiently? It’s an obvious question to ask, when you’ve got forces that are all running the same HR systems, the same IT systems, the same payroll systems. Why is every force in the country doing that on their own? Why not join up together to collaborate as we say, so that you do things once, rather than a number of times. And that’s precisely what Cambridgeshire are looking to do. They’re looking to join in, to collaborate with neighbouring forces, so that they can make the taxpayer’s pound work better for the taxpayer, so that they can protect police officers on the front line, so that more officers are available to the public when they’re really needed.
PAUL STAINTON: But you see where I’m coming from here. The Chief of Police in Cambridgeshire has said they will do their utmost, absolute utmost, to protect front line policing. Wherever you draw the line, on front line policing, they can justify whatever job cuts they’ve got and say, no they’re not front line police officers, because this is what the Inspector has said.
ZOE BILLINGHAM:You know what, that’s not happening Paul. What is happening ..
PAUL STAINTON: Well we don’t know yet.
ZOE BILLINGHAM:Well what’s happening across the country, and what I’m seeing from that regional perspective, is that forces are very clear that they need to do things more efficiently. Yes it’s a difficult ask when 80% of your costs is in people, to take out significant sums. And I think it’s really important that we get the message straight here as well. We’re not saying that those staff that work in the back office functions aren’t valuable. How many organisations are going to work and operate if they haven’t got decent training, a system to pay people, that they can’t support them through their jobs? And a number of these back office roles are important too. So it’s really really important that we don’t dismiss those as disposable. They absolutely aren’t. The key for policing at the moment is to look how you organise yourself, look at your shift patterns, look at your overtime, to see how you can deliver the service to the public that they need, but at less cost. And that’s precisely what Cambridgeshire and the new Chief Constable together with the police authority are doing.
PAUL STAINTON: Zoe, thank you for that. Zoe Billingham, HM Inspector for the Eastern Region.