The stereotypical image of a police officer is difficult to dismiss. There’s the peaked cap, the pressed uniform, and above all the expectation that the officer is patrolling a busy street, crouched in a speed trap, or helping to guide traffic. Simply put: the assumption is that the officer is in public. But at the 2015 Public Safety Summit, Chris Sims, the Chief Constable of the West Midlands (UK) Police Department, explained how, upon taking office six years ago, he realized that in his jurisdiction, that “iconic” image would soon become a thing of the past.
Over the last half-decade, the West Midlands Police (WMP) has been in flux. When Sims took office, the agency had approximately 13,500 staff members; but after experiencing extensive budget cuts, it is now down to approximately 10,000 personnel. Making matters worse, the department needs to generate another $190 million in savings over the next five years, meaning that by 2020, it will have to pare back its staff to 8,000 total personnel. In a county with 3 million people spread across nearly 350 square miles in west-central England, it is becoming physically impossible to have a highly visible police presence.
Although the fiscal pressures seem daunting, Sims does not consider them devastating. He believes that technological innovations—like the development of communications and imaging technology—mean that an enormous amount of patrol work can now be done remotely, as the nature of crime changes. In the past, West Midlands had primarily grappled with acquisitive crimes (e.g., burglaries). In recent years, those crimes have fallen, but West Midlands has witnessed an increase in crimes like child abuse and exploitation that deal with encroachments on private space. As a result, WMP has had to make, as Sims said, a “massive shift” to focus more on this latter category for which it is less important to have a highly visible police presence.
Thus, in the face of enormous challenges, Sims does not see peril but instead has recognized an opportunity to adapt to broader cultural and technological shifts. The key, he realized, was finding a way to “configure [the organization] to manage that challenge” and then communicating to the public that even though it might seem like they were getting poorer services, their communities were actually receiving better protection. “We have this potentially difficult dialogue with the public,” Sims said, “that says we are better at doing the policing, we’re better at protecting you, but the service we’re giving you isn’t as rose-tinted and nice as the service that you might want to see.”
As he began to develop a reform strategy, Sims realized that typical responses to austerity—such as layoffs and other cost reductions—could only go so far; he realized that he needed the expertise of external partners to determine how to reshape his organization and make it run more effectively. “How do you introduce technology and in doing it, change the way the organization works and the people within operate?” Sims asked himself. “The answer to that is you have to have a really sophisticated, sequential delivery to make the thing fly in the way you expect.” Thus, he took the unusual step of seeking out private sector expertise and engaging the consulting firm, Accenture. Working together, the two organizations crafted WMP 2020, a blueprint released in summer 2015 outlining how the organization would reinvent itself over the next five years.
WMP 2020 has four key planks: listening to and reassuring key stakeholders, preventing harm, responding at pace, and being ready to learn and adapt. But underlying these goals is a commitment to using information more effectively and, more specifically, to obtaining valuable information from partners, harnessing the information it can obtain from crucial technologies, and disseminating information to citizens and other stakeholders about how WMP 2020 is making them safer. “Information and how information is used,” Sims explained, “is an absolute game changer in the way that [our] mission is going to be delivered.”
In developing and beginning to implement WMP 2020, Sims and his colleagues have reached out not just to industry experts but also to academics—who have helped them to develop evidence-based policing strategies—as well as other government agencies. Among the most important of these are the county’s mental health professionals. WMP now operates triage cars staffed with police officers as well as mental health nurses. Together they often do initial assessments of the increasingly common encroachment crimes with which WMP has grappled. As a result of this approach, they have helped to lessen the “demand” on and for traditional crime response units. From the private sector to academia to government, Sims and his team have gone outside their organization to get the information and resources they need.
WMP has leveraged not just partnerships but also technology to harness the power of information. As a substitute for foot patrols, they plan to rely more on mobile communications technology that will allow people to report crimes, cameras that will enable them to monitor possible violations, and a revamped data infrastructure that will allow them to merge and analyze the data they receive. From Sims’ perspective, the plan to embrace data demonstrates the recognition of a foundational truth about the future of policing. “Technology is changing everything,” the chief constable said. “It’s changing public expectations of how they access policing, it’s changing crime itself and again it’s requiring us to be very different in the way we work.”
Finally, Sims has communicated critical information about change to the public and articulated how the public will be able to communicate information to WMP moving forward. Specifically, there have been extensive news reports about the WMP 2020 plan, Sims has directly addressed the importance of public engagement when speaking about the reform, and the plan itself delves into how WMP will transition away from community-based policing. At the moment, WMP has approximately 2,000 officers focused on community policing, a number that will drop dramatically by the time the reform effort is complete. To address this, Sims is creating a digital platform that makes WMP “accessible” to the public and enables citizens both to identify priorities and to “self-serve,” all of which helps to assuage citizen concerns and enables WMP to manage demand more effectively.
Whether WMP’s five-year plan proves effective remains to be seen, but what impresses already is that in the face of enormous fiscal difficulties as well as technological and cultural change, Sims has not cowered. Instead, he has embraced this linchpin moment as an opportunity to improve and seized information as a vital ingredient to ensure progress. “The transformation…in this,” Sims says, “is…about how you move from being a very people-intensive organization to one that has to have a whole range of different approaches to do the same job with far less resources.”
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