Target practice for the police

British police forces have been given target numbers of arrests - and they're offered points and bonuses to reach them.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Are police officers arresting people merely to meet their targets?

Police in Greater Manchester Police are now set a target of four arrests per month (1). One former officer, who recently left the force, recalls that one month she had only made three arrests. ‘Go and arrest somebody for public order’, her sergeant instructed.

She describes how the targets changed the way the police worked. ‘Before, if somebody was being rowdy you might give them a caution, or arrest them for drunk and disorderly. After the targets came in, we were told by our sergeants to arrest them under section five of the Public Order Act.’

Drunk and disorderly isn’t a recordable offence, and so doesn’t count towards officers’ arrest target. Public Order Act offences are recordable – but they’re also more serious, leaving the offender with a criminal record. This means that people could be winding up with criminal records in order that an officer can make his month’s tally.

Ian Hunt, a representative for the Greater Manchester Police Federation, says there is ‘anecdotal evidence that the number of arrests for Public Order has gone up, and arrests for drunk and disorderly have fallen’. There is no official sanction for failing to reach the targets, but officers could come under pressure from their managers. According to reports, officers who perform above target could get bonuses of between £50 and £500 (2).

Manchester isn’t the only police force to bring in targets. Earlier this year, Thames Valley police in London piloted a points scheme for officers – nabbing a rapist or burglar was reportedly worth 10 points, stopping a driver for not wearing a seatbelt was worth five – and they were told to aim for 200 points a month (3).

The scheme has now been modified. ‘It was clearly seen to be clumsy’, says John Grant, deputy secretary of the Thames Valley Police Federation. ‘Among others, the Police Federation weren’t happy.’ According to Richard Eccles, secretary of the North Wales Police Federation, North Wales police are running a similar scheme as a pilot in Wrexham. He tells me that officers also have to aim for 200 points a month – apparently they get 25 points for catching somebody who is drunk and unfit to drive, 10 points for getting someone driving without insurance, and five points for someone speeding or not wearing a seatbelt.

These performance targets treat the police as if they were supermarket managers. Yet their ‘product’ is not cans of beans, but arrests; that is, people’s liberty. This unprincipled attitude to criminal justice comes from central government down. The 2002 White Paper Justice for All promised a ‘speedier, simpler and quality justice’, as if this were just like any business. The government is keen to send messages about crime – either to show that the police are cracking down on crime, or to show that crime has gone down. The government set the target that, ‘by 2005-06, 1.2million crimes recorded by the police result in an offender being brought to justice’ (4).

Of course, the enforcement of the law has always been a bit of a lottery. Where one officer would turn a blind eye to a minor offence, another might haul you over the coals. Targets make it even more random, so that whether you get picked up and charged can depend less on what you did, than on what boxes a particular force is trying to tick.

Richard Eccles notes that, for North Wales traffic officers, ‘There is no incentive for you to help a colleague with a burglary case. Why spend an hour looking into a burglary when you could be trying to find somebody driving without a seatbelt?’ And who knows, the targets could shift when the government decides it wants to send a different message. In a forthcoming police publication, one North Wales sergeant writes: ‘I have no doubt that as we now have to reduce violent crime over the next few years that all the current Section five Public Order offences will become drunk and disorderleys again!’

All of this breeds disarray. ‘The web we are spinning is becoming more and more tangled’, judges the North Wales sergeant. He notes how targets mean that forces compete against one another. ‘The performance culture has led to section versus section in the pursuit of better figures whereby officers do not want to know about any crime which is committed 10 yards over on another section.’

With good reason, the targets are breeding suspicion among the public. Richard Eccles tells me: ‘People are saying, “You are only booking me because you want points for this”.’ He says that this could become a defence in court, with defence lawyers suggesting that their client was booked so that the officer could make his 200 points (this would particularly apply to somebody arrested towards the end of a month). Thankfully, although police may give out arrests like parking tickets, they still have to get through a legal system with a few principles left.

At least, that’s until magistrates are set targets for the number of convictions they have to hand out every month….

(1) Off-target police could face the sack, Manchester Evening News, 17 May 2005

(2) Cops ‘face sack over targets’, Manchester Evening News, 8 May 2005

(3) Traffic officers must make eight arrests a month, Daily Mail, 28 June 2005

(4) , National Policing Plan 2003-6

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Topics Politics


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