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Crime: Do we need more police?

Mark Easton
By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

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Welcome to Reality Check. Today I'm asking whether we need more police officers.

We are now more policed, in England and Wales, than at any time since Robert Peel sent the first bobby onto the beat in 1829: three times as many officers as a century ago, twice as many as 50 years ago.

In 1960, as the iconic Dixon was patrolling Dock Green, there were 46 million people in England and Wales and 72,000 police.

In 2010 there are 54 million people and 144,000 police. In other words, while the population has risen 17%, police numbers have increased 100%.

That means that in 1960 there were, roughly, 640 people per police officer in England and Wales. Now there are 375 people for each one.

More police = less crime?

The Liberal Democrats are alone among the big Westminster parties in promising yet more police - another 3,000 officers are required, they say. This would cost us, according to their own calculations, an additional £500,000 a day by the end of the next Parliament.

Would it be millions well spent? Well, the argument that more police = less crime is hard to prove.


I have tracked down two bits of research which show, broadly, what has happened to police recruitment in England and Wales in the course of the last century.

The first is a neat piece of work by researchers in the House of Commons library .

Their research shows police numbers in England and Wales rising in five yearly averages from about 30,000 in 1875 to more than 120,000 in 2000.

The second graph, also from the House of Commons researchers, looks at what has happened between 1979 and 2009.

Graph of police officer numbers

These figures reflect the number of police officers, not community support officers which now account for an additional 16,000 uniforms on the streets.

Mark Easton
It would be almost perverse to argue that more police has no effect on crime. But we don't know how much impact they have or how long that impact lasts
Mark Easton
BBC's home editor

The big picture is of almost inexorable increase with a series of step-changes in police numbers in the mid-60s, the 80s, again in the 90s and in the early part of this century.

For most of the last 50 years, police numbers went up as crime went up. It is impossible to know whether crime would have risen even further and faster if there hadn't been all those extra uniforms, but the experience from 1960 to 1995 does not provide particularly compelling evidence that more officers cuts offending

One is not to know, for example, to what extent having more police increased the amount of overall crime they recorded.

Economic impact

The same document that produced the first police numbers graph, also charts the story of recorded crime in the 20th century.

A similar trend is seen in police recorded crime statistics from the Home Office.

Graph of recorded crime in England and Wales

It is only in the last 15 years that we see a period of increasing police numbers and falling crime, and it is this brief period that Home Office minister David Hanson used as evidence that "bobbies on the beat do help to cut crime" in a letter to the Guardian a few months ago.

As the criminologist Richard Garside pointed out in a blog at the time, the government's own analysis has argued that "80% of [the] recent decrease in crime [is] due to economic factors".

This line has since been removed from the online Cabinet Office document, apparently, but not before the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies had clocked it, referenced it and pondered on its implications.

Extract from Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report

If that is right, then being tough on crime might have rather more to do with the chancellor of the exchequer than the home secretary.

The problem is, that for all the academic research and Whitehall analysis, we simply don't know whether more police does equal less crime.

We don't even know whether having thousands more uniforms on the streets makes people feel safer or, possibly, contributes to making them more anxious.

A selection of your comments are below.

Part of the problem is that in the 1940s/1950s, lots of crime was 'cuffed' ie not recorded. When reality took hold there appeared to be an enormous rise in crime. Not entirely so - lots of it was there all the time. Secondly, despite increases in Police numbers, many are absorbed into squads for this and that - drug squads, child protection etc. the list is endless. There is also a culture of innovation of ideas to try to control crime.
Bill, Hartlepool

First point: No, we do not need more police officers. We need to use the ones we already have properly. They should be allowed to do their job without having to produce reams of paper every time they look sideways at someone. The 'bean counters' have taken over and every action taken by one officer is scrutinized by five more. Accountability is a good thing, but we must balance it against the police being able to do what we want them to do - which is protect us. Second point: We should spend what meagre resources we have left on our children. Let us treat the cause of our social ills, not the symptoms. Let us educate our children to be better citizens, not wait until they are feral youths and lock them up.
Mark , Liverpool

The figures speak for themselves. Hong Kong has a population about half that of London, but the same number of police officers (about 30,000). That's why Hong Kong is safe and London is not! Most policemen in Hong Kong are deployed on foot patrols, which deter crime. In London, suburban foot patrols are almost never seen.
Paul, Hong Kong

The stats are simple, create more laws and you create more "unlawful" actions. Have more bobbies on the beat and have more unlawful action detected (notwithstanding the archaic system of offences taken into consideration). This is more a question of government growth. People should not give up their responsibilities so freely to feed this growth and so no we do not need more police.
David, London

We don't need more police. The huge rise in crime since the mid 60s (as per your graph) reflects the criminalisation of drugs, particularly heroin.
Max, London

The UK definitely needs more police. I was brought up in London during the 1960s & vividly remember seeing a "bobby on the beat". Yes there was crime but there was a moral code. People respected the police. That is long past. The Thatcher-Blair doctrine of "personal freedom - no such thing as society" nonsense has left the UK as a failed state.
KC, Geneva

Absolutely not! The Liberal Democrats really mist read the book called "freakonomics" which completely disproved mathematically the notion on more police officers = lower crime. What we need is more extreme prison conditions to act as a better deterrent against crime in the first place.
Richard, Bushmills, NI

I have some alternative equations: 1) more effective education = less crime 2) Human Rights Act + government bureaucracy = more paperwork = less police effectiveness = need to have more police officers. Increase (1) and reduce (2) will not only save taxpayers a lot of money, but also reduce crime and increase crime conviction rates.
Neale, Sweden

Having just got back from a USA (volcano extended) holiday I believe the issue is about visibility more than numbers. Over there you regularly saw police cars on patrol and significantly more officers on foot and simply calling into stores, petrol stations, etc. as well as in the malls and open spaces. Once back in the UK I drove from Heathrow home and never saw a single police car or officer.
Greg, Shropshire

As a serving police officer on response (not hidden in a nice office) it is quite simple. When we're short staffed on nights everyone ends up tied up at incidents fairly quickly. Nobody is left to patrol proactively - targeting criminals, stopping and searching people and generally disrupting burglars - we don't make the early arrests for going equipped and get hammered for crime overnight. A rise in police officers has been undermined by a growth in legislation and responsibilities and the loss of community.
David, England

Where are they all then?
Nick, London

I think we do need more police to tackle the petty crime and anti social behaviour on the streets. I believe the Policing Pledge where officers have to spend 80% of their shifts 'visible' to the community is great and in many areas this is being doing. However, what's the point of more police when prisons are full and the courts are letting them off with community service/smaller sentences? What's happened to being tough on crime?? I think more police definitely impacts on the fear of crime/offers reassurance, and people become more familiar with their beat team and feel comfortable reporting crime.
Rachel, West Midlands

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