So the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s (NIAO) ‘Review of Continuous Improvement Arrangements in Policing’ has come and gone. To many outside policing and academic circles, the report will be little more than a news item as to how the Northern Ireland Policing Board (NIPB) and Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) ‘measure’ policing in the country.
But aside from the content of the report which alludes to a ‘slackening’ of the NIPB’s accountability strings over PSNI, so too it raises wider issues about public understandings and dissemination of ‘police work’ – whatever that actually is.
Examining the NIAO report in more detail, the essence of the findings may be found on page 4:
‘the performance indicators included within the Policing Plan 2012-13 are reasonable. However, 40 of the 44 performance standards included in the Plan lack sufficient clarity as to the degree of improvement required and the timeframe within which it is to be achieved’ (NIAO, 2013:4).
The report goes on to conclude that many performance indicators within the 2012-13 Plan have no precise targets, measures or even benchmarks for success beyond requiring that PSNI ‘reduce’ levels of particular crimes. Even in relation to PSNI’s Policing with the Community Strategy for example, the Plan simply requires evidence of implementation rather than measuring the impact of that strategy.
Not very scientific for an organisation with an annual budget of nearly £7m. Although quoting the NIPB’s Ryan Feeney on Twitter, in the wake of the report findings he stated: ‘disappointed in audit office report on @nipolicingboard particularly when members fought to include precise targets in the policing plan’.
But aside from the report itself, the burning question is what does this all really mean for the NIPB and PSNI? And importantly, what do we as the public, really know about policing performance in Northern Ireland?
In attempting to unpick these questions, it is important to provide some context as to the development of ‘holding the police to account’ related to contemporary policing generally, and Northern Ireland specifically. Going back to the 1980s and 90s, we witnessed the rise of ‘New Public Management’ from Westminster – really a collective term for Government policies aimed at making more efficient and effective public sector organisations in the U.K. As McLaughlin et al. (2001:313) contend this drive encompassed an array of attempts ‘premised upon ‘best practice’, ‘what works’ and a ‘non-ideological’ and apolitical logic of cost-effective evaluation and audit’.
The trickle-down effect to policing, and especially so since the New Labour era has been particularly evident. With ‘targets’ having become the new ‘watch word’ for the delivery of policing:
‘pressure to hit targets means that rank-and-file officers are more likely to make arrests and issue penalty notices for disorder and minor incidents which would not have been recorded a decade ago’ (Police Review, 2007:5).
Thus, for police services, at least in England and Wales, accounting for their success (or otherwise) has been a corporate, Hayekian project tied closely to the ‘3Es’ of economy, effectiveness and efficiency.
But for Northern Ireland, we can observe that the conflict and post-conflict phases of recent history (and related policing and security need) have largely sheltered the policing institutions from such pressures. While the days of ‘blank cheque policing’ associated with the immediate Patten reform era have passed, money has seldom been an issue, as the ‘price of peace’ – at least in a security sense – continues to hold its value. In this respect, accountability for policing has a very different connotation this side of the Irish Sea.
Though whatever side of the political fence one interprets policing from, if the Patten reforms were about anything, they were an agreement that policing needed to change. And with that, so too did regimes of accountability and oversight to (re)build trust in communities previously distanced from day-to-day policing operations. As of 2013, the police accountability architecture created under Patten renders the PSNI the most overseen and accountable police service anywhere in the world – and especially at the level of operational policing.
But getting back to the NIAO, the NIPB and police oversight/accountability, what has also characterized the post-Patten era of policing has been an absolute reliance on the bureaucratic measures of police success, spurred on by the political need for policing here ‘to work’. Particularly for the NIPB, over the last number of years they have become ‘bogged down’ in a ‘bean counting’ culture – replicated 26 times over the years through the vehicle of the former District Policing Partnerships and now Policing and Community Safety Partnerships. Clouding the vision of the wider ‘policing project’ for Northern Ireland, percentage changes and coloured bar charts have become the order of the day and objects of desire for the bureaucrats who invent them.
Additionally, such mentalities have infected the PSNI, with evidence pointing to the fact that ‘target culture’, far from promoting efficient policing in fact skews police priorities in favour of that which can be measured and not necessarily of that which needs done. As characterised by one PSNI officer in a study by Topping (2009) during this period:
‘put it like this, for example last year, we said we’d increase our youth diversion referrals for the year…that target might be five a month – you can get those one night and that’s it done for the month, so the rest of the month needn’t bother. It’s the same for other targets you know’.
This sentiment has been further captured by Fielding and Innes (2006:136-7) where, in this world of excel-driven thinking underscored by ‘quick win’ mentalities, social problems: ‘are frequently identified as police problems to which there are police solutions. Any change is attributed to police causes ignoring chances in the wider social system’. Though beyond the genesis of target-driven policing, we can’t forget the human, operational impact of the ‘bean counters’ upon police officers themselves. As evidenced by another PSNI officer:
‘I think to individually count what people do is de-motivating, because to be at the top, you need to do so much work it’s astronomical. To be at the bottom, you’ll probably lose your job. So what does everyone do? They slide along in the middle – it’s human nature. So that kind of measuring promotes mediocrity’ (Topping, 2009:223).
So in taking a step back from notions of accountability and oversight for policing, one could reasonably argue that the NIPB are in fact correct in reducing the focus on statistical metrics – as criticized by the NIAO – and look towards alternative police measures and metrics. Importantly, this is not without precedent in a wider policing context, with Theresa May back in 2010 calling for the abolition of all police targets except those of reducing crime and increasing confidence.
But such debates related to the pros and cons of the manner in which PSNI should be held account are merely academic. Because when we take a criminologists eye and cast it over the current crop of crime and policing-related statistics upon which targets and performance are based, they are best a vague record of crime trends; and at worst, an inaccurate account of the true levels of crime and confidence in the police, pedaled by those whom agendas they suit.
Beginning with raw crime statistics, Matt Baggott has long congratulated his organisation on their success in reducing crime levels in the country to the lowest in 14 years. But a question seldom asked is whether PSNI can really lay sole claim to the responsibility for crime reduction? On a global level, we’ve recently witnessed the big ‘crime drop’ – with worldwide reductions in the levels of crime defying the predictions of criminologists and police alike as to rise in criminality resulting from the economic downturn. So immediately, we can observe that socio-economic factors outside the PSNI are potentially responsible for reductions in crime. Indeed, some criminologist also point to the futility of ‘traditional’ crime categories when set against the evolving nature of crime, such as cyber crime and organized criminality.
Locally, first year criminology undergraduates can tell you that the most recent iteration of Northern Ireland Crime Survey estimates there are approximately 165,000 crimes annually in the country – a massive difference compared to PSNI’s recorded crime statistics of 103,000. Indeed, PSNI’s new crime mapping website does little except to perpetuate this inaccurate picture of officially recorded crime in a visual manner to the masses. Set within this equation, we can’t forget that Northern Ireland is additionally replete with a highly advanced civil society who engage in a range of legitimate ‘policing’ activities – such as interventions with young people, dealing with interface violence, restorative justice, drug awareness and community safety but to name a few (Topping & Byrne, 2012). While quantifying many of these non-police contributions is fundamentally fraught, the art of measuring something that never was is not within the vocabulary of the ‘bean counters’.
And finally, as I’ve argued long and hard elsewhere, the empirical basis to support the claim that there is 87% public confidence in the PSNI across the country (derived from NIPB surveys) is simply not reliable in any shape or form. Yet as recently as 3rd August 2013, in the wake of the NIAO report, PSNI continue to liberally use this metric as a yardstick of success.
So out of this debate, two key issues emerge. Firstly, even if we, as a sensible, educated public are to accept to a minimal extent that the current ‘official’ accounts of crime are not accurate and that PSNI cannot lay claim to the monopoly over control of crime levels in the country, why are the multimillion pound policing institutions with the statisticians, research departments and analysts so obsessed with basing their activities and measures of success on these flawed official figures? And secondly, what are the alternatives? To an extent, the NIPB should take a step away from the restrictive, calculated target culture which has characterized policing in the post-Patten era. But of course PSNI cannot simply be cut loose to police in what ever way they see fit without recourse to public scrutiny.
So many reading this may ask if there is a middle ground, a compromise, a means of allowing PSNI the autonomy to deliver policing as they see fit without the over-zealous hand of the ‘bean-counters’? But perhaps a better solution is to step outside of the minutiae of crime figures and target culture and to examine the bigger picture of where we are with ‘public’ crime and policing knowledge. Because we are in a perverse situation where we have some of the most well-funded and advanced policing institutions in the world pumping out vast quantities of public information on crime figures and police performance as metrics of accountability. Yet at the same time, the vast majority of this information is not used, at least in a public or political sense, in any sophisticated way to inform policing debate.
For fear of the differential picture it may paint, NIPB confidence data is not broken down to any meaningful levels of granularity – geographically or otherwise – to see where people, in simple terms, have a problem with PSNI. For all the millions of pounds poured into recording, analyzing and capturing crime levels, concerns of criminologists as to the accuracy of those figures remain just that – concerns. Why let empirical research and critical thinking get in the way of a good bar chart?
So fundamentally, while the NIAO raise legitimate issues as to how the NIPB have been holding PSNI to account, such debates miss the subtle, yet important issue of what police accountability really means. So until such time as all the policing institutions, including the Department of Justice, can come up with a collective, more holistic means of capturing variations in crime and correlating PSNI actions to those, Disraeli’s clichéd dictum will remain as true as ever.