By Graham Hieke
In 2010, the coalition government’s spending review indicated that funding for the police service in England and Wales would be reduced in real terms by 20% between 2011 and 2015 (HMIC, 2014). Whilst savings were anticipated to be made through collaboration between forces, the public and private sectors, as well as increased back-office efficiency, austerity has also had an impact on police service strength. As a consequence, since 2010, the number of frontline police officers has fallen by nearly 20,000, a drop of -14% (Home Office, 2016).
Determining the impact of austerity on policing is challenging. In 2014, HMIC identified concerns about the erosion of neighbourhood policing services and the possible adverse effects of increased workloads on the ability of the police service to prevent crime and protect the public (HMIC, 2014). In response, at the Police Federation conference (2015), the then Home Secretary Theresa May sought to offset many of these concerns, including those about reduced spending and the decline in frontline service strength, by highlighting the drop in crime as measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales (May, 2015).
However, using recorded crime statistics as a means to understand the impact of austerity measures within the police service has the potential to mask other important issues. For instance, notwithstanding known limitations with crime survey data, these figures are unlikely to reflect the diverse range of work associated with frontline policing, the changing nature of crime, or the new challenges and pressures this presents officers with on a daily basis. The nature of frontline police work and the pressure it entails means that the risk of physical or psychological injury is estimated to be higher than compared to many other occupations (Health and Safety Executive, 2015). The online blogs of Constable Chaos, Mental Health Cop and Nathan Constable (to name but a few) provide compelling accounts of these pressures and are well worth a read.
One issue that is receiving growing attention is the psychological impact of police work. Whilst rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are estimated to be higher within policing than compared to the general population (Green, 2004), a recent freedom of information (FOI) request submitted by the BBC (2016) revealed a 35% increase in the number of police officers taking long-term sick leave due to issues with mental health. Similarly, evidence has also been presented which suggests officers may be attending for duty at times when they feel they ought not to have done so due to concerns about their mental health or well-being (Police Federation, 2016).
The notion of coming to work when unfit to do so, or presenteeism, is detrimental for a host of different reasons. From the perspective of officers, it may exacerbate existing medical conditions, lower quality of life, or give the impression of ineffectiveness due to declines in productivity (Jones, 2010). Clearly, reduced productivity may also have implications for both the police service and the communities they serve in terms of quality of service and demand reduction. However, perhaps problematically, presenteeism may also be viewed as an act of organisational citizenship (Jones, 2010) as officers experiencing physical or psychological injuries may decide not to report, downplay, or hide them to avoid letting their teams down by taking sick leave. Such concerns accord strongly with the notions of mission, solidarity, camaraderie and loyalty often associated with policing and highlight how any meaningful change will have to navigate not only budgetary constraints, which have seen forces scale-back or out-source occupational health services, but also overcome cultural attitudes towards ill-health and the stigma that may be attached to mental health issues.
Therefore, if we are to ask the police service to do the same (or more) with less resource we must be prepared to invest in services to help support those officers in dealing with the challenging nature of frontline police work.
BBC (2016) Police psychological sick leave up 35% in five years. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35965223 (accessed 20 July 2016)
Green, B. (2004) ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder in UK police officers’, Current Medical Research and Opinions. 20(1): 1-5.
Health and Safety Executive (2015) Police Service – Statistics. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/services/police/statistics.htm (accessed 20 July 2016).
HMIC (2014) Policing in Austerity Meeting the Challenge. Available at https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/wp-content/uploads/policing-in-austerity-meeting-the-challenge.pdf (accessed 24 July 2016).
Home Office (2016) Police Workforce, England and Wales, 31 March 2015. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-workforce-england-and-wales-31-march-2016 (accessed 21 July 2016)
Jones, G. (2010) ‘Presenteeism in the workplace: A review and research agenda’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31: 519-42.
May, T. (2015) Home Secretary’s Police Federation 2015 Speech. London: Home Office. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/home-secretarys-police-federation-2015-speech (accessed 20 July 2016)
Police Federation (2016) Mental health affecting more and more officers. Available at: http://www.polfed.org/newsroom/3402.aspx (accessed 19 July 2016).
Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.