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The Wiltshire Police

How much do the police cost? Where / on what is that money spend? Who pays?

What do they cost?

Questions I had never asked myself until last night when I went along to the Wiltshire Police Authority's "Budget Consultation" with the county's Chambers of Commerce. Clearly a fascinating subject as some 15 members attended out of thousands of members of The Chambers, but at least I can get back to Melksham Chamber and report.

Dusk in SwindonNext year, the Wiltshire Police force will spend 105 million pounds. That's sold to us as 152.59 on each Council Tax band D property, but in fact the council tax money only accounts for 36% of their income - the rest is from central government who are funded by (wait for it!) the taxpayer / population of this country too. So I could also tell you that the equivalent including money passed back from Central Government is 423.86 for each Council Tax band D property, or about 180 pounds for every man, woman and child in the county.

The budget has grown by 3.6% from the 2008/2009 year, with broadly the same expenditure plans. "Unavoidable" increases accounting for 4.1 million - things like pay and general inflation; there is in my view an element of double-speak here as the police force is now up to its full allowed strength for the first time in five years, and had they chosen not to fill all the vacancies, their salary bill would have been lower. However, that's a whole other question, and as I listened to Chief Constable Brian Moore and his team talk about how an officer making an arrest for a small issue at the start of his shift can be 'processing' for the rest of his 8 hours (or pass across to a less well paid civilian to process, taking the same time), I came to understand that there's a lot of the cost which is the cost of bureaucracy. And that only a proportion of that is within the remit and control of the local force - much is forced on by law and government.

Where is it spent?

Trowbridge town centre 91 million pounds out of 105 million will be spent on staff. That's 62 million on 1226 police officers - just over 50,000 per officer - and 29 million on around 1100 civilian staff, or 26,500 each. Just under a half of the remainder goes on premises, with IT and vehicles being mentioned as significant "other" elements. 10 million of the 62 million on officers goes back to the government to fund officer's pensions (a money-go-round?) and 15% of the 29 million (4.3 million) goes to the civilian pension scheme which is run with other local governmental bodies such as Wiltshire (county) Council.

Premises include 24 police stations, but few have their front desks manned. "Little point in having someone there for just half a dozen visitors a day" say The Chief, mentioning that only a few larger stations such as Melksham (!) get significant numbers. "Haven't they heard of multitasking - doing other work and breaking from it to answer an enquiry?" muttered another member of the audience and - I confess - that's a good point and something we do at the Hotel; I suspect that the police do, but the "we can't afford to spend your money having someone waiting for enquiries" is a good sound bite, isn't it?

On the green at HarnhamWith such a lot of money going on manpower, where is that manpower deployed? Brian Moore told us that some 85 to 90% goes on the policing we see around. The rest goes on a wide variety of other areas such as keeping tabs on organised crime, background work in tracking of prostitutes to and via Wiltshire, drug work (drugs come into the county via Bristol and London, and to some extent Birmingham), counter terrorism work and internet policing, where apparently we have a local team who may end up catching someone in another country. And we have a kidnap team too, as ransom demands from some of the world's hotspots can arrive at family's homes in Wiltshire ...

As I understand it, Special Constables are unpaid officers who police in their spare time, so should be a lower cost option for certain roles. Although paid officers are currently up to the allowed strength of 1226, there are under 100 specials out of an allowed 300. The Chief Constable, new in the job just a year ago and selling a number of significant changes, wants to get 'up to strength' on this, and feels that the specials are a good resource who have been poorly treated in the past. He talked, for example, of giving them a good choice of roles - "if they want to be in the thick of sorting out a pub brawl ... let them". Hmmm - there's a danger of attracting the wrong sort there, me thinks - but I'm sure he's aware.

Although the evening was sold as a budget consultation, there was no talk (and I hadn't expected it) that overtly related to taking our inputs and recording them with a view to making any spending or policing decisions. It was much more a meeting to tell us, and to answer questions on what is pretty close to fixed in stone. There's a Police Authority meeting in Devizes on 5th February at which the budget will be voted on (and no doubt approved); it will be open to the public, but I can't imagine the funding allocations being changed that evening in response to public input.

And on to other matters

Entry to Old SarumThere's more that pure finance when it comes to policing - the money is just the means to the end. There was talk of 'boy racers' in the Tesco car park across the way from where we were, and the police powers to seize and crush vehicles ("very effective"). There was talk of the technology that's around the area (I'll spare you the detail) which means that the police know what's going on without being there. 25 years after George Orwell's 1984, we should not be surprised.

As a county that borders many others (and other force areas), the question of mergers, and also of sharing resources for the sake of efficiency, were raised. Mergers suggested by the government a couple of years back won't be happening - now or in the near future - but changes to the law to require forces to work much closer together have come into effect. Changes are painfully slow, we were told, as each force has its own local ways that it wants to protect. But (for example) I can't help but think that some pooling is a good idea; an "Internet team" in Trowbridge, one in Exeter, one in Gloucester, when catching people downloading in the USA (the quoted example) or Japan seems a needless localisation.

Melksham Offices The Police Helicopter and Wiltshire Air Ambulance - funded 75% by the police and 25% by local donations - has been renewed for a further five years (1 million pounds per annum); much of its value comes in the form of police relations and publicity and - like having bobbies on the beat at the car park - isn't necessarily the most efficient use of money, but indirectly brings huge rewards in terms of the critical relationship between the police and the community.

Chief Superintendent John Kirby, responsible for the division that includes Trowbridge, spoke of the enhanced neighbourhood policy to help with this community relationship. Although there has been a neighbourhood policing policy in place, it has lacked (in places) a dedicated sergeant to provide management support, and local officers have all too often been seconded elsewhere or have not been replaced when away. There's now an 80% beat pledge, a pledge to replace officers who are away for 28 days or more, and a pledge to have all areas supervised by a dedicated more senior officer rather than one who's main task and mind set is answering 999 calls.

Melksham HousingWiltshire is a safe county. At least that's my conception and that of most of us in the area. Reported crimes are around 30k per annum, and this is down 10% this year. The decrease was sold to us as being a good thing, so I assume that there's no evidence that reported crime hasn't dropped just because people know things they report won't get followed up, or there's no-one at the police station to whom to report them. Last year, before the new Chief Constable arrived, some 21 to 22% of crimes across the county were detected. This year, I understand, detection rates have risen - up to 37% in Salisbury was quoted. Of course, it's not statistically valid to compare the two different measures here (but many people will be tricked into doing so, I'm sure!), but I did come away from the meeting with a re-assurance of an earnest team at the top of our police service, working against some incredibly (over)complex systems, and far better placed that you or I would be to deal with the wide ranging calls on their service.

(written 2009-01-29, updated 2009-01-31)

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