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Target men

A Met policeman reveals how obsession with official figures distorts the work of the force

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

I am a long-serving officer in the Metropolitan Police and my passion for the job is matched only by my frustration and anger at what I see going on around me. The Met is capable of, and frequently achieves, great things. But this happens in spite of the way it is run, not because of it. For years, I have watched as the service has been disfigured by the need to satisfy targets dictated from above, fundamentally changing the way police do their job. What follows is my attempt to bring to light what is happening inside the Met, and doubtless in constabularies throughout the land.

The Metropolitan Police Service is now dominated by figures. Every facet of the organisation has targets and quotas on which everything else is measured, assessed and planned. The need to achieve these targets usually outweighs any other consideration, no matter the consequences. Vast sums of money are channelled into meeting these numbers, at the expense of everything else.

It starts at the response level — which is what we now call the people in uniform. Every officer at the police station where I work is set targets for arrests per week. Pressure is brought to bear on officers to bring in arrests because the team then receives a point. It doesn’t really matter whether the arrest is followed by a conviction. If the officer is shown to have made an arrest for burglary, or any other offence, on paper at least that means he is doing his job.

It does not take long to work out what the natural consequence is: people are arrested for nothing. I have reviewed hundreds of cases in which the ‘evidence’ has turned out to be woefully inadequate. And everyone knows it, from the arresting officer, through to the custody sergeant and on to the unfortunate detective. All prisoners have to be interviewed, frequently with a solicitor present, and their case reviewed before a course of action is decided. It all takes — and wastes — a staggering amount of time. There are squads of officers (burglary squad, robbery squad, domestic violence and so on) who often spend whole days (and, over a year, millions of pounds of the taxpayer’s money) interviewing and releasing people without charge. Any questioning of this farce results in an inevitable shrug of the shoulders: ‘It’s what the boss wants. I just do as I’m told.’

At the next level up, there is pressure on Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers to achieve a ‘sanctioned detection’ — a charge or caution. These young men or women have ways of making sure they meet these targets. The Crown Prosecution Service (more on them later) will not support a charge without overwhelming evidence. But a police caution can be administered willy-nilly, and so gullible prisoners often accept a caution when they have done nothing wrong. Officers are measured on their ability to, as my colleagues delicately put it, ‘squeeze a caution out of a shit case’.

I know of one instance in which a uniformed sergeant stole (or neglected to hand in) some confiscated cannabis. Instead, he divided it up into smaller amounts and gave it to his junior constables, who created fictional names, wrote fictitious reports and claimed six ‘sanctioned detections’ for six cannabis confiscations. There was no suggestion of personal reward or profit, you understand, just an overwhelming need to tick boxes.

The CPS has different wrongheaded incentives. While the police are measured solely on their ability to charge someone and put them before a jury, the CPS is judged on conviction rate. It therefore only authorises a charge where the evidence is overwhelming. The result? Thousands of obviously guilty defendants never have to face court. An alternative is to reduce the charge to one to which the defendant will plead guilty. A 17-year-old is arrested in possession of 15 wraps of heroin or crack and £100 in his pocket. He tests negative for drug use himself. He claims that he ‘hasn’t done any for a week’ but has just bought a week’s worth for his own use. So he’s charged with possession as opposed to supply, pleads guilty at court and the CPS save themselves the cost of a contested trial. (This quick-and-simple approach does not apply when the victim is a pretty celebrity known to all.)

The machinations of the Met when it comes to massaging its crime figures are legendary. Every borough has a department within it called the ‘crime management unit’. Its purpose is in theory to ensure accuracy in the recording and classifying of crimes. Its members also add their ‘expertise’ in more constructive ways. Take a robbery. A victim is attacked on a bus and punched several times. The attackers do not use any words as they attack. The victim drops his or her iPod. The attackers steal it and run off. That would be reclassified as an assault followed by theft. Two crimes instead of one, but the all-important street robbery figure has been reduced. If one of the attackers is caught on the spot and charged, however, the classification remains one of robbery because it’s been ‘cleared up’.

Each Met department includes the ‘victim focus unit’, usually staffed by community support officers (remember Ian Blair’s project to increase ‘visible policing’?). Their job is to ensure the requirements of the ‘Victim’s Charter’ are met. They do this by sending out computer-generated letters, usually informing a victim of crime that ‘your case remains under investigation but I cannot give you any details at this time’. This tells the victim nothing and costs a lot of money.

Crimes of differing complexity attract the same rewards as far as ‘clear ups’ are concerned. Take burglary. At one end of the scale you might have a break-in to a large house carried out by a skilled gang, who strike while the occupants are away on holiday. They disable the alarm system and escape without alerting anyone. The crime is discovered a week after it is committed and it takes months of enquiries by many officers (checking street CCTV, house-to-house enquiries, monitoring of secondhand goods sales and debriefing informants) to solve. If someone is charged, the crime is ‘cleared up’, and the Met department gets one point.

Now consider a 14-year-old who walks past a garage adjoining a house. The garage door is wide open. On the spur of the moment he decides to enter it and help himself to a football. He is caught by the householder and a passing police officer is stopped to deal with it. In days gone by, the football would have been returned and the child marched home to his parents. The matter would not have been recorded. Now, by arresting the 14-year-old, taking him to a station, detaining him, interviewing him, taking his fingerprints and his DNA, the officer can claim the same domestic burglary ‘clear-up’ as in the first case. And if there were four youths in the garage, then they can arrest all four and it will look even better. It doesn’t take the brains of Britain to work out what the average officer will decide to do. In the all-important world of targets, his professional judgment and discretion will go out of the window.

Finally, a word on money. The Met has a budget of billions. It is currently under pressure to cut spending by 20 per cent, and is struggling. This is ridiculous, since so much time is wasted in the police, and not necessarily through officer laziness. Take overtime. The public thinks that all overtime is simply an officer signing on for extra shifts, and turning up. Not so. The majority of overtime at ground level is due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’. An officer cannot always clock off after an eight-hour shift. He may have to deal with a traffic accident or a fight, or writing his arrest notes, or responding to a requ
est by a court for further information. There is often no choice but to stay and work. At my station (several hundred officers), we get through about £900,000 a year in this way: almost all of the work is unforeseeable.

The Met runs three call centres, known as Metcall, to handle incoming calls from the public and to supervise the police response. It is a vital area of policing, but one in which the workload is, for the most part, predictable. It is literally a case of having the appropriate number of people on duty to answer the calls, and each operator can simply sign off to be replaced by another. It follows that more staff will be required on a weekday afternoon than a Sunday morning, or at night. One wonders, then, why the Met spends £3.5 million a year in overtime alone at its call centres. Officers call Metcall ‘the money machine’. All they have to do is sign up to work answering the phone on their days off.

You might wonder why the Met does this. It’s targets, again. The Policing Charter requires police forces to answer telephone calls within a certain time, deploy a response and so on. Fair enough, but Metcall is so badly organised that civilian staff are called in on ridiculously expensive ‘flexitime’ arrangements. The Met bridges the gap by employing police officers on overtime.

There are 52,000 men and women in the Metropolitan Police, and none of them signed up to have a career like this. It’s a waste not just of taxpayers’ money, but of good officers who geniunely want to make London a safer place. If our politicians swept away the perverse incentives that disfigure the Met so badly, they’d be amazed at just how much more effective its officers could become.

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