The public image of the police is not at its best at the moment. Policemen, rather like goalkeepers, tend to be judged by their shortcomings rather than their successes, and the video of poor Ian Tomlinson being knocked to the ground by a baton-wielding police officer shortly before he died will be a PR blow the police will find it hard to get over.
But as with the NHS, the police is one of those organisations where people’s actual experiences with an organisation differ from their perceptions of how things are going.
So it’s not surprising that outgoing West Midlands Police chief constable Paul Scott-Lee chose to focus on the public perception of safety, as well as the usual target of crime rates, during his time in power.
And the statistics give testimony to a time at the top that Sir Paul can feel proud of. Crime is down 33 per cent in the last six years, with people’s feelings of safety up. This gives credence to Sir Paul’s claims that what people really care about is local policing on local issues.
Given the nature of the high-profile events that have taken place under his tenure – inter-racial tensions in the 2005 Lozells riots, gang violence with the deaths of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare, and the constant threat of terrorism-related crimes – to increase the public feeling of safety is a fine achievement indeed.
It shows that a focus on local policing can have an impact on perceptions of crime as much as on crime itself.
So it seems strange that while acknowledging a successful six years of a local focus for coppers, Sir Paul is saying that increasing the size of police forces is still on the agenda.
Creating the ‘superforces’ – as championed by erstwhile home secretary Charles Clarke – appeared to be dead in the water years ago, with most of the forces in the West Midlands some of the few supporters.
Sir Paul describes it as “inevitable” that forces will merge, which in the Midlands would most likely leave a single body stretching from Stoke to South Birmingham to the Leicestershire borders.
But would the head of such an organisation be able to give the job the kind of detailed attention Sir Paul has given the West Midlands?
While increased co-operation between forces is already happening, particularly on resource-intensive parts of the business like counter-terrorism, perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind that the merging plans were rejected the first time round for a reason.