Institute for the Study of Civil Society
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Police reductions could see crime rate surge

Briefing prepared by Nick Cowen.

The Government has announced a 20% real terms reduction in police funding over the next four years, starting with a 6% cut in the national funding grant this year. Satisfying this proposal is likely to involve dramatic staff reductions, including of frontline police officers. Policing and Criminal Justice Minister Nick Herbert has admitted the cuts will be 'challenging' for police forces. But what will be the impact on the general public? In this briefing, we show that there is a strong relationship between the size of police forces and national crime rates. As a result, this cut might turn out to be costly for the British public.

An International Comparison

Using data from the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics, we compare the number of police officers per 100,000 population and recorded offences per 100,000 population. We present the data from 2006 as it is the most recent year provided by the European Sourcebook with a reasonably complete dataset. However, the resulting pattern is similar in all the years (2003-2007) that the latest Sourcebook covers. We have included all full members of the EU where both police numbers and recorded offences are available for 2006.

Country Number of Police per 100,000 population Recorded Offences per 100,000 population
Finland 154 9796
Denmark 165 7822
Sweden 192 13490
Netherlands 216 7454
Estonia 241 3858
Poland 260 3378
England & Wales 263 10102
Slovakia 266 2136
Hungary 284 4229
Germany 304 7659
Ireland 306 11134
Scotland 317 10250
Austria 321 7118
Lithuania 330 2904
France 345 6049
Romania 349 1078
Belgium 353 9600
Mean 356 5751
Malta 432 4066
Latvia 433 2724
Greece 435 4160
Slovenia 440 4499
Croatia 446 2648
Czech Republic 447 3271
Portugal 453 3784
Spain 475 5145
Northern Ireland 528 6954
Italy 553 4702
Cyprus 665 1028

The data suggest an association between police officers per head of population and crimes per head. A nation with a larger proportion of police officers is somewhat more likely to have a lower crime rate. A nation with fewer police is more likely to have a higher crime rate. For example, England and Wales currently has a smaller number of police officers per 100,000 than the European average and has a higher crime rate than average. There is a prima facie case to suggest that this relationship may be causal since the main purpose of a police force is to protect the public and prevent crime. In other words, it is plausible to suggest from the data that reducing the number of police officers in any given country could lead to an increase in the crime rate. Can this claim be supported by more academic approaches to the evidence?

Findings consistent with other evidence for England and Wales

A number of academic studies have examined possible causes of variations in recorded crime rates. The most robust studies suggest that successful police interventions are associated with the most significant reductions in crime, more than other criminal justice interventions and also many economic and social factors. Both detection rates (the proportion of recorded offences that are solved by police) and 'risk of conviction' are consistently negatively correlated with crime rates. These are also key measures of police strength and effectiveness.

  • David P. Farrington and Darrick Joliffe (2005) at the University of Cambridge examined national changes in recorded crime rates in England and Wales from 1981 to 1999. They found: 'The measure of risk - the number of convictions per 1,000 offenders - was strongly and negatively related to all types of survey and recorded crimes… robbery, assault, and rape had the highest correlations with risk.' (Tonry and Farrington, p.70)

  • Robert Witt, Alan Clarke and Nigel Fielding (1999) examined changes in crime rates in 42 Police Force Areas in England and Wales from 1986 to 1996 in a study published in the British Journal of Criminology. They found: '…[a] strong negative effect of police on crime... more police are associated with lower crime rates.' They found that police presence appeared to have a particularly strong impact on vehicle crime. (Crime and economic activity. A panel data approach)

  • Lu Han, Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay and Samrat Bhattacharya (2010) at the University of Birmingham examined changes in crime rates from 43 Police Force Areas in England and Wales from 1992 to 2008 in a recent discussion paper. They found that an increase in detection rates was associated with significant decreases in both violent crime and property crime. (Determinants of Violent and Property Crimes in England and Wales: A Panel Data Analysis)

Establishing firm causal relationships is notoriously difficult in criminology. However, crime rates have been consistently negatively correlated with key measures of police effectiveness. Therefore, it is plausible to suggest that police resources play an essential role in tackling crime. While police numbers and resources are far from the only contributor to police effectiveness, it seems highly unlikely that the swingeing cuts now being enacted will be made without significantly decreasing detection rates. The result will be that offenders will be able to engage in criminal acts with a reduced risk of being caught and sanctioned, making criminal acts less risky and more attractive for potential offenders. As a result, it is possible that recent falls in crime will be halted or even reversed. Members of the public are at greater risk of crime in the coming year.