Police officers: Underpaid, overworked and dangerously ill-equipped
The thin blue line has never been thinner, Police Federation chair Steve White tells Aden Simpson, and if conditions and pay do not improve, members may 'lose faith' in century-old convention and lobby for industrial rights.
A newly reformed Police Federation of England and Wales will address delegates at its annual conference today, trumpeting its demands for a 2.8% pay rise, additional resources for the use of tasers, and the need to foster more public support.
Enough is enough, was the message coming from Federation chair, Steve White. The austerity measures imposed on the police service over the last four years have seen the departure of 17,000 police officers and another 17,000 staff, with the remaining members stretched to dangerous degrees.
“The thin blue line is thinner than it’s ever been,” said Mr White, “and we’re being asked to do more than we’ve ever been asked to do.”
ONS figures released last month show crime levels jumped to record highs in 2014, yet officers remain overworked and under-equipped, while enduring a real pay cut of 15%.
“That’s why we need the public to shout their support from the rooftops,” he added. “So that when it comes to battling with the Government for resources, they take on board what their constituents are saying.”
A recent Ipsos Mori poll shows that 68% of the general public trust the police service (as White points out, a great deal more than the 21% for politicians) yet the Federation believes it can, and must do better.
Since the ‘Plebgate’ scandal in 2012, the PFEW has undergone an intense reform programme of 36 recommendations, almost all of which have been fulfilled. “We’re a progressive, more up-to-date, streamlined organisation,” said White, “which is what the review was meant to deliver.”
Part of the Federation’s new agenda is to improve public engagement and the perception of the police force - a goal of added importance in the wake of the Hillsborough ruling.
“Of course we have to be held to account, absolutely. We need an independent police complaints commission; a system that deals with that effectively, and as soon as possible. Not 27 years after the event,” White asserted.
“But you cannot judge the police officers of today by what happened 27 years ago. It affects the psyche of the service, this level of perpetual criticism.”
To this end the Police Federation is running a public relations campaign - Believe in Blue - to put the positive work of the police force ‘at the forefront of people’s minds.’
“What we do every day doesn’t make the headlines, but if we didn’t then it would,” he adds.
“If we can get the public overtly on side, they can then give their views, whether it be to local politicians or national, as to where they think the priorities should be. I think security has to be up there.”
The latest figures show disturbing spikes in crime rates over a 12-month period - sexual offences rose by 29%, violence against a person by 27%, homicide by 11% - all on top of a heightened terrorist threat and snowballing cases of cybercrime, which are “just the tip of the iceberg,” said White.
For an already diminished police force to meet this demand, White is adamant that, at a minimum, funding is set aside to equip officers with tasers.
“In terms of the use of force, it’s a lower level than batten or CS spray,” he said. “We give all cops battens and spray, and yet we’re resistant to giving them a taser, which reduces the risk of injury and is much more effective.”
He gave the recent example of a terrorist at Leytonstone tube station last year that was effectively disarmed and detained, only because the officers at the scene had tasers.
“We’ve got to ensure police officers have the tools with them, when they need them. Otherwise it risks officers, it risks the public and risks offenders.”
Most pertinent of all however, is the issue of police pay.
Having been frozen for four years, after inflation and cuts in allowances such as the competency-related payment threshold, officers have stomached a real pay cut of 15%.
“Were not asking for 15%,” said White, “but we are saying that 2.8% is clearly evidenced; it’s the median of private sector employees.”
He acknowledges this is ‘out of kilter’ with the 1% public sector average, yet since the Police Remuneration Review Body (PRRB) was set up in 2014, the PFEW has the opportunity to submit proposals to independent decision-makers.
“If they don’t agree with us, they will have to evidence why,” he said. “This will be a crucial time to see whether or not we do have faith and confidence in the new system.”
The Police Federation was formed by an act of parliament after the last police strike in 1919, which bars its members from industrial action so long as the Government continues to bargain ‘in good faith.’
However, White argues that if the situation persists, this proviso will be harder to justify.
“They can’t just say the Government only want to give us 1%. In that case we might as well withdraw from the pay review process in its entirety, because we’ll have no faith in it,” he said.
“There will undoubtedly be, as there quite often are, people in the Police Federation who will be saying that we’ve got to start lobbying for industrial rights.
“We’re not there yet - we can’t strike, we’re not allowed to - but we will have to start potentially withdrawing from the process and think about dealing with things in a different way, to show the government of the day the strength of feeling amongst the police service.”
“We’ve got to wait and see,” he tempered. “We’ve made our submission for this year. Let’s see what the response is.”