Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.
In a world of competing demands we must have some way of prioritising. This is true in our own lives, our personal finances, and in public policy. We expect our doctors to prioritise those most in need of care, and so similarly we all expect the police to prioritise as well. In recent years, senior police officers across the country have developed an approach to prioritisation that looks at harm as the driver of decision making. The challenge is to balance competing harms.
Police forces up and down the country have adopted various acronyms for their methods of prioritisation such as THOR (Threat Hear Opportunity Risk) or THRIVE (Threat Harm Risk Investigation Vulnerability Engagement). Fundamental to all of these decision making-models is harm – and with good reason.
We all expect the police to protect us and our families from harm. Some would say it is what the emergency services exist for. It is easy to look at the extremes of harm in society, such as serious violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. We would all agree that these are areas that the police should prioritise for prevention and response. So far so good.
Thankfully, however, a majority of people will not become victims of these “high harm” offences. When presented with a list of possible offences, I would expect most of us would identify these most serious of crimes as the highest priority. However, in the abstract, the concerns regularly raised by residents are much more likely to relate to anti-social behaviour, speeding, or theft. These are the issues that are most likely to affect our communities and there remains a need to address these real life concerns.
In the complex system of policing, it must be possible to address multiple priorities at the same time. There is no simple trade off: a sexual assault may trump speeding, but both matter, albeit in different ways. This is critical not just because the offences themselves should be dealt with, but more fundamentally because we need to maintain confidence in the police.
Many of the high harm priorities that Forces will rightly put significant resources into tackling will take place behind closed doors, or at least away from the public gaze. If you have been a victim of what the police will often tellingly refer to as a “volume crime”, it could still have a huge impact on your life. This is where the supremacy of the harm assessment can be problematic. In many cases the crimes that many people will sadly experience cause very little harm. It will often involve the loss or damage of property. No-one has been physically hurt by the events, and so the harm is considered very low.
The logic of this approach is entirely reasonable, however it often ignores the non-physical impacts. If the bicycle that has been stolen is someone’s only means of getting to work, or the theft of tools from a van also stole someone’s livelihood, or repeated criminal damage causes someone to live in fear in their own home, then there is significant harm that is not always taken into account because it may not always be obvious.
Beyond the individual cases, the biggest loser in this game of chasing harm may be confidence in the police itself. In a system that still prides itself of policing by consent, confidence is everything. The police want, in fact need, the public to report incidents and intelligence in order to do their jobs. Yet, if the public have little or no confidence that their time spent reporting a crime will be worthwhile then they will simply stop doing so.
The problems with the 101 non-emergency telephone service are a good example of this. Much of the country has suffered with poor performance for some time and Thames Valley has been no exception. Things have improved and continue to do so (the latest stats show an average wait of just one minute 36 seconds). However problems still exist in reporting “volume crimes”, and too many people who have not even used 101 themselves know all too well the stories of being kept on hold for 20 minutes. So why bother?
The answer is not simply a populist approach. I am not advocating for the abandonment of victims of abuse and serious violence, who are numerically thankfully lower, in favour of the larger group who may have experienced lower level crimes. However in speaking up for the public, Police & Crime Commissioners have a role to hold Chief Constables to account for how they are serving the whole population.
There is another part of the THOR (Threat Harm Opportunity Risk) model which is often overlooked, and that is opportunity. Dealing with crime is increasingly complex and there are sophisticated organised criminals seeking to exploit our weaknesses. Whether it is cyber criminals working online to defraud people of their savings, or gangs working in rural areas to steal machinery and traffic it out of the country, there is often little physical harm. In some circumstances there may even be threats of violence, and certainly menace, but once again, if no-one is actually hurt, then it does not always attract the attention it deserves.
There is a fantastic opportunity to tackle these gangs that can often generate a disproportionate amount of “volume crime”. Some of this work has already begun and certainly in Thames Valley, the Force have taken advantage of the period of lockdown to advance work against some of these groups of organised criminals who cause so much pain to local communities, but do not always score so highly in the normal harm rankings.
There is much more to do, but it is vital that we seize this opportunity for renewal, accompanied by the increase in officer numbers. There will undoubtedly be difficult financial times ahead as a result of COVID-19, but now is the time to reinvigorate local policing and ensure that as well as continuing to deal with the high harm crimes that undoubtedly deserve the utmost attention, the police demonstrate that they can address the concerns of residents that may not directly cause physical harm, but can undoubtedly bring about misery for communities.