It is incontrovertible that the number of police officers is falling in England and Wales. But the nature of the link to the level of serious violent crime has proven to be more difficult to pin down.
As a result, it has become the focal point of a fierce debate between the Conservatives and Labour, as well as between police forces and ministers – but possibly to the detriment of a more nuanced and broader understanding of the spike in violence.
Home Office statistics show the number of police officers fell from their peak of 144,353 in 2009 to 123,142 in March 2017.
Some serious violent offences have been rising since 2014, including homicide, knife crime and gun crime.
The Police Federation, which represents tens of thousands of rank-and-file officers, has repeatedly warned that any rises in crime can be closely linked to a decline in the number of officers. Former police officers, including those writing for the Guardian, have asserted that the reduced availability of officers is putting national security at risk.
Last year, the Police Foundation, an independent policing thinktank, published a study on neighbourhood policing – in essence bobbies on the beat – that concluded: “It is clear that the cuts imposed in the years of austerity have substantially diminished the effectiveness of neighbourhood policing in many areas.”
And now research commissioned by the Home Office, and seen by the Guardian, found that falling officer numbers is likely to be “an underlying driver that has allowed the rise [in violent crime] to continue”.
So how can the argument that a drop of police officers is linked to a rise in violence be challenged – including by the current home secretary, Amber Rudd?
Looking further back, the statistics create room for doubt. Violent crime as recorded by police has been increasing since 2014, but it was falling between 2009 and 2014 – as police officer numbers were being cut.
There are also different measures, which can complicate the picture. The Office for National Statistics said that the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), an alternative measure to police-recorded offences, is the best source for assessing long-term trends in violent crime as the survey’s methodology has remained consistent over time.
According to that survey, violence peaked in 1995 and has fallen by more than two-thirds – 68% – since. And from 2007-2008, when police numbers were at a high, violent crimes continued to decrease by 41%.
The Home Office research also states that – on a force by force breakdown of violent crime offences – not all forces with falling officer numbers are experiencing rises in violent crime.
For these reasons, the home secretary has argued that it is too “simplistic” to focus solely on police numbers.
What is clear is that omitting any discussion or research on police numbers in what is supposed to be a landmark serious violence strategy – regardless of the views or conclusions drawn – leaves the home secretary and her department wide open to criticism.
The documents, leaked to the Guardian, were laid out and written in similar language to that which appeared in the final strategy. One of the graphs in the research document was used in the final paper. But the impact of reduced police numbers was nowhere to be found.
The debate over the decline of police officer numbers prevents other possible causes behind the rise in violent crime being given much attention, such as the impact of austerity.
According to the research, falling officer numbers are “unlikely” to have triggered the shift in violent crime – rather, they allowed it to continue to rise. It acknowledges that falling officer numbers are “not the main driver but likely to have contributed”.
Chapter 2 of the serious violence strategy is titled “risk and protective factors and interventions”. Behind this dry headline, there is complex research into the drivers at “an individual level” that could make for equally as uncomfortable reading for the government as any criticism over falling police numbers.
It states that, like other types of crime and antisocial behaviour, violent crime has a clear link to “poor life outcomes” such as low educational attainment, poor health and unemployment. “Consequently socioeconomic improvements, strengthening ties to family, school and non-violent norms are key areas for reducing violence,” it concludes.
Elsewhere in the strategy, great focus is placed on illegal drug markets and the link with violent crime. It mentions that there is evidence to suggest use of crack cocaine, one of the most additive illegal substances, is on the rise in England and Wales without any further explanation why its use is increasing.
It seems to suggest that, along with falling police numbers, another reason for the rise in police-recorded violent crime could be an increase in people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
If crime can act as a barometer for the health of a country, then this report flags up broad and complex factors behind the rise in violence including, but not limited to, the number of police officers on the streets of England and Wales.