Tim Hollis: Policing Drugs in Austerity - Adjusting to the challenge,12 October 2011
One of the challenges of policing drugs is the wealth of anecdote as opposed to evidence about what works. The UK Drugs Policy Commission, whose report Drug Enforcement in an Age of Austerity is published today, is an independent body committed to evidence-based assessment. It’s an approach I wholeheartedly support.
The fact that the current austerity measures in the face of significant budget reductions are starting to have an impact on police operational capacity when it comes to drug enforcement is itself no surprise, although it is, perhaps, too early to draw firm conclusions on the longer term impact.
Only recently the National Treatment Agency announced significant reductions in the number of people addicted to heroin and crack cocaine. I welcome that reduction but I cannot claim that this is a result simply of better enforcement. The challenge presented by illicit drugs is more complex than that.
It’s vital to remember that enforcement is but one element of the Government’s overall drugs strategy. Education, prevention and treatment play an equally important role in tackling a long established and systemic social problem. Unambiguously, the police role is to be central to the enforcement element and I welcome the opportunity to debate how we can make the police service’s contribution, alongside other agencies, as effective as it can be.
So what are the key issues emerging from the UKDPC review? Well, it is important to remember that they drew directly on practical experience: surveying police officers and staff currently engaged in drugs enforcement. These are people absolutely committed to reducing the harms caused to local communities by drugs and, predictably, they are disappointed when our capacity to tackle the problem is reduced. Some of that sentiment is reflected in the findings. It is, however, inevitable that reduced budgets impact upon capacity somewhere along the line, and hard to argue that drugs enforcement should be made an exception.
Addressing the harms caused by serious and organised crime quite correctly remains a high priority for Government and the Home Office has only recently published its crime strategy for addressing the problem. Enforcement at national level plays a central role in setting the context within which local policing takes place. Having announced the creation of the National Crime Agency a year ago, the new head of the NCA has just been appointed. That provides the opportunity for ACPO, on behalf of the 43 police forces, to start a dialogue with the NCA as to priorities and intentions when it comes to drugs enforcement and how they intend to utilise resources and cooperate with forces.
We will not, however, lose sight of the need for forces to retain the ability to tackle local problems. As a Chief Constable, I know all too well how devastating to a local community low level drugs dealers and such things as crack houses can be. Of course we realise that if we take out one local dealer another will step up to take their place but if you’re a single Mum on an inner city estate trying to raise a family and hold down a job in a flat next door to a crack house then you don’t care about that. You want the local Neighbourhood Policing team to get stuck in, to raid the flat and move the dealers away. Retaining the capacity to tackle such problems is critical to retaining public confidence and Chief Constables will do everything they can to protect operational policing.
Finally, the UKDPC Review highlighted the importance of good partnership working when it comes to achieving long term solutions. I do worry about the cumulative impact of budget reductions across the Criminal Justice Agencies, particularly the Probation Service who have a key role to play in reducing re-offending. There is good evidence that Integrated Offender Management is delivering results but this initiative is under pressure. Similarly, local authorities are wrestling with greater budget cuts than those affecting policing, but joint-working is at the heart of so many successful local drugs initiatives.
I remain confident that Forces will continue to protect local communities as best they can at a time when we are confronted by challenges of an historic scale. The UKDPC provides evidence that the Service is already responding positively to the challenge.
Tim Hollis is Chief Constable of Humberside Police and Chair of the ACPO Drugs Committee