The Times has reported that prosecutors send “tens of thousands” of files back to police services every year because they contain “significant mistakes” and that the problem has been especially acute in the Met.
Figures obtained from the the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) showed that over 60% of these documents were sent back to our police during the first quarter of 2018-19, costing time and public money. Nearly half of files sent out by the separate City of London Police during the same period contained errors that held up proceedings. Scotland Yard and the CPS agree that things have improved in the Met of late, after “a dedicated team to review and address file quality was introduced,” but the to the casual observer the amount of mistakes still seems very high.
Some interesting Twitter exchanges have ensued in response to the Times piece being highlighted by Gavin Hales, a respected researcher on policing, crime and the criminal justice system. Police officers – it’s not clear if they work in London – have claimed that files returned by the CPS often turn out to contain the supposedly “missing” material and that there’s inefficiency is at that end. One says the CPS asks for things that are impossible or unnecessary and that specialist police units that used to deal with “volume crime casefiles” have been disbanded and replaced by people who are overworked and undertrained.
Is this all about budget cuts then? Maybe not all. Hales notes the wide variations in send back rates between different police services across the country (in Suffolk it was only 10%) and the way the Met has improved since giving the problem more attention. He wonders if lack of resources is therefore the whole story here. And picking up on an observation that police officers are not trained administrators he says:
That exposes the lie that the only thing that matters is police officer numbers, rather than a balanced workforce including sufficient police staff.
This strikes a big chord with me as someone who covered political quarrels about policing when Boris Johnson was London Mayor. From him and fellow Tories came constant claims that by cutting “waste” at the Met in the form of “back office staff”, more resources could be devoted to “the frontline”, by which they usually meant “visible” police officers. In 2012, none other than the then home secretary Theresa May praised Johnson for putting “more police on the streets”.
However, the then Green Party AM Jenny Jones discovered from the Met at that time that during the first two years of the coalition government’s spending cuts, the number of warranted officers undertaking “support” roles had increased during the same period in which support staff had been falling. In other words, under Johnson the Met got rid of “back office” in order to be able to keep “frontline” numbers up, only to withdraw warranted officers from the “frontline” to do the jobs the “waste” back office people had done.
Hales’s point is that effective and efficient policing is not only about how many cops you have on your force but also how many properly trained staff you have to help them do their jobs well. It would be good to see this issue addressed more often by City Hall politicians. Alas, the nearer next year’s mayoral election gets, the more focussed the debate already seems to be on sterile set-tos about budget cuts and “bobbies on the beat”.
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