A more efficient allocation of resources, prioritising those crimes and criminals who do the most harm to communities, while dealing effectively with rising demand and stagnating – or in some cases dwindling – budgets, has been something of a holy grail for policing in the UK and beyond in recent years, and well before the current pandemic.
It suggests the idea of a crime harm index should be developed to provide the basis for any future framework, showing how harm factors related to offences – rather than simply the volume of crime – drives the need for relevant resources.
The mantras of ‘doing more with less’ and ‘getting a bigger bang for your buck’ had long echoed around the corridors of senior command teams. And while the arrival of a new UK Government heralded pledges of more officers and a stronger law and order focus, the post-Covid financial crunch looks set to make value for money a key driver over the coming years.
Now a new report has turned to the recently revamped concept of crime harm indexes as a cornerstone of achieving that holy grail. Published by the Tony Blair Institute, Smarter Policing: Principles for a New Approach warns that a new approach to resource prioritisation is needed before the policing system deteriorates beyond repair in the post-pandemic financial squeeze.
Against the pre-pandemic backdrop of ad-hoc operational decision-making, rising demand and a sharp fall in charge rates, the report proposes the creation of a new National Centre for Excellence in Policing, based on the successful National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) model in healthcare, along with a structured transparent prioritisation framework to ‘transform resource allocation and with it, police effectiveness’.
And it suggests the idea of a crime harm index should be developed to provide the basis for any future framework, showing how harm factors related to offences – rather than simply the volume of crime – drives the need for relevant resources.
Replacing target culture
The Cambridge Crime Harm Index concept was conceived at the height of the target culture dominating policing in England and Wales around 2007, and unveiled for use in 2016 by Professor Lawrence Sherman and Peter Neyroud, former Chief Constable and head of the National Policing Improvement Agency.
Using sentencing guidelines in England and Wales, based on a first time offender, and barring all aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances put forward in court, a harm score is allocated to each offence. For minor crimes that would result in a fine, the harm score is calculated by taking the number of days it would take someone earning the minimum wage to pay the penalty.
A crime harm index definitely makes a difference in the way we see what’s going on. It’s like a lens refracting; you see where the real harm lies, and then allocate resources in a transparent, prioritised way.”
Institute of Criminology,
University of Cambridge
“Targets were skewing police activity, churning out low-level violent and property crime figures; they were discouraging – criming things to get you points,” Mr Neyroud told Policing Insight. “A crime harm index definitely makes a difference in the way we see what’s going on. It’s like a lens refracting; you see where the real harm lies, and then allocate resources in a transparent, prioritised way.”
He noted that the service in the UK has been dealing with a loss of resources for the past decade and the challenging financial fall out from the COVID-19 crisis means there will be “very serious prioritisation issues and we need something more sophisticated than what’s been there up till now”.
He also believes the way the 20,000 extra officers coming on stream under Operation Uplift are utilised is crucial: “This is a really important moment. If we want to set the dial for policing for the next decade, we need to set it against a set of measures much more prioritised than in the past.”
In the year to March 2020, only 7% of crimes led to a charge – down from 16% in five years – as the police found themselves increasingly stretched with more areas of responsibility; this now includes the added burden of enforcing COVID-19 legislation during the coronavirus outbreak.
‘It is this context of rising demand and declining effectiveness which makes a coherent approach to prioritisation more urgent,’ said the report. ‘This was true even before the COVID-19 crisis and it is even more pressing today, with the fiscal outlook having darkened substantially.’
It refers to non-crime demand ‘sucking up more resources’ and warns ‘prioritisation can no longer afford to be fudged’ by chief constables who are ‘effectively told to “do everything”’ with weak accountability in relation to how police time is spent.
Time for transparency on prioritisation
One of the report’s authors, Harvey Redgrave, Senior Fellow at the Tony Blair Institute and Chief Executive of crime and policing consultancy Crest, told Policing Insight that the question of how police spend their time is left largely unexplained away from public view as an operational issue, despite the “theoretical accountability mechanism through the PCC with links to the public”.
“Chiefs make priority decisions every day on screening, triage, call handling and deployment,” he said. “But it’s not really guided by any strategy framework. What the public are seeing is a service under strain, a diminishing core service and an uninformed public debate about what should be done.
Policing is more than just responding to crime, but for the bit that is about investigating crime, it could be much more evidence-led and structured about how to decide which offences are prioritised.”
Harvey Redgrave, Senior Fellow, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
“It would be better if the service was straight about the fact that finite resources mean difficult choices about priorities and this paper sets out how to support police chiefs to do that. Policing is more than just responding to crime, but for the bit that is about investigating crime, it could be much more evidence-led and structured about how to decide which offences are prioritised.”
The report suggests that introducing a model based on the same approach as NICE (now known as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) would build transparency and clarity into the prioritisation process to support chiefs and PCCs ‘currently criticised from all angles’.
Mr Redgrave added it would reveal “which offences give the best bang for your buck,” once harm scores, the cost of investigating the offence and clear-up rates are combined to provide a cost-benefit ratio and remove current regional variations in outcomes.
He said the model was not reliant totally on a crime harm index, but “builds on it and develops it” or other harm-based protocols. These include the Office for National Statistics’ Crime Severity Score, which relies on data from actual offence sentences (including aggravating features and mitigating circumstances) rather than national guidelines.
‘Not only does the public face a postcode lottery in outcomes, but it also faces a postcode lottery in the provision of core policing services,’ notes the report. ‘Variation in provision might be accepted by the public if it is underpinned by a clear rationale or framework. However, no such rationale or framework exists to guide forces or PCCs in making their decisions, especially as it relates to the balance between net positive outcomes overall and minimising individual instances of harm.’
From health demand to crime harm
NICE was created in 1999 following concerns about a postcode lottery in the provision of new drugs and the development of clinical guidelines, ‘the quality of which were perceived to be variable (and which took no account of cost-effectiveness),’ said the Institute’s report: ‘It offers a useful comparison because, as with crime, health demand inevitably exceeds the resources available and, therefore, the basis upon which rationing occurs has to be seen to be fair.’
Rather than championing a purely outcome-based or harm-based model, the police could separate out those offences with low conviction rates and particularly high investigative costs, according to the report’s outline of the proposed model.
Rather than championing a purely outcome-based or harm-based model, the police could separate out those offences with low conviction rates and particularly high investigative costs, according to the report’s outline of the proposed model. ‘At an offence group level, the harm-based approach would primarily apply to rape; however, a more granular index might lead to standard offences with complicating flags (eg domestic violence, hate crime) being included too.
‘These offences could be stripped out from the utility calculus and ranked individually, with the resources of the force in question being allocated in proportion to individual harm caused by an instance of that offence. This would prevent offences such as rape from being deprioritised on cost grounds, but would still offer a clearer guide to the optimal resource allocation among other offences based on harm.
‘In contrast, a purely outcome-based approach could be taken for offences that are easier to convict, with resources allocated in proportion to the cost-benefit ratio of the offence in question. This would ensure that police forces have a good chance of securing a significant reduction in aggregate harm, without sacrificing outcomes for difficult offences that are low in volume but high in harm.
‘The precise allocation of resources between the outcomes offences and the harm offences would be decided by individual forces, in line with local priorities proposed by the PCC. This system would be more robust than the current ad-hoc approach to prioritisation for all offences.’
Government should take the lead
The authors recommend that government leads the development of this framework, and introduces a ‘comply or explain’ principle with forces ‘which would encourage them to vary from the standard set for prioritisation where they feel able to justify this variation by differences in local priorities (as defined by the PCC)’.
‘This framework would be advisory, rather than obligatory, and combined with real public engagement in the setting of local force priorities. Publishing the rationale behind prioritisation decisions would allow the public to see why certain offences were prioritised over others. If the PCC (as the locally elected representative) disagreed with the approach taken by the force, it could use that as a justification for variation (subject to safeguards).’
Harvey Redgrave warned that the service is suffering from “structure fatigue” and so suggested a centre for excellence should sit within the College or soon-to-be launched National Crime Laboratory rather than carry its own administrative burden.
Harvey Redgrave said such a national framework would be an effective reference point for the public “who are ready to understand the difficult choices that need to be made, and would prefer to be levelled with about how that’s happening.”
He warned, however, that the service is suffering from “structure fatigue” and so suggested a centre for excellence should sit within the College or soon-to-be launched National Crime Laboratory rather than carry its own administrative burden. “It’s about an approach,” Mr Redgrave told Policing Insight. “The institution is secondary.”
Mr Neyroud supports the principle and in the meantime is keen to see his crime harm index “be part of normal business” across forces, citing “around a dozen” who already routinely apply it to patrol strategies and other daily policing activities.
In the foreword to the report, former Police Minister Nick Hurd described how the ‘highly fragmented landscape of our police system’ needs to find ‘a better balance between encouraging innovation and being more systemic in understanding what works and then applying it more consistently on behalf of the public.’
Historic initiatives, he said, have been ‘too timid’ and a more radical approach sharing good practice is overdue; the report’s authors themselves concluded ‘a new approach to prioritisation is needed now, before the system deteriorates beyond repair’.
The world’s first live webinar on the Crime Harm Index is being hosted (free) by co-founder Lawrence Sherman next Tuesday (17 November) at 4pm GMT. The webinar will describe what the CHI is, how it differs from a traditional crime count, and how it is currently being used in various jurisdictions around the world. Click here to register.
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