bobbies off the beatHundreds of Police Stations Have Shut Under the ConservativesAt a Cost of Rising Crime
Two-thirds of police stations in England have closed since 2010. A new study digs into the dire consequences, Josiah Mortimer reports
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Cuts leading to the closure of two-thirds of police stations in England since 2010 have directly contributed to a rise in violent crime, according to a new study.
The cuts have been among the most severe in London with three-quarters of London police stations closing in less than ten years.
Central government funding for policing has fallen by 20% in real terms since 2010, resulting in the closure of 600 out of 900 police stations in England. London has been hard hit with the number of police stations falling from 153 in 2010 to just 45 in 2018.
The current trajectory of the Met Police’s estates strategy is for there to be just one central police station per borough (there are 32). Both mayors Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan have overseen sweeping closures under Home Office funding deals.
The analysis, which has not been widely reported, has been published by the academic Elisa Facchetti for the Centre for Economic Policy Research.
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Reduction in budgets resulted in the closure of 75% of London police stations in less than ten years from 2010, doubling the average distance of Londoners to their nearest station from 1.4 km to 3.1 km.
The study finds the closure of police stations resulted in a persistent increase in violent crimes, measured as assaults and murders, of about 11%. The effect is “sudden, persists over time, and is concentrated in blocks surrounding closed stations” – suggesting that higher distance lowers police deterrence, and therefore increases the incidence of high-severity crimes.
Increased distance to police stations caused officer response time to get slower, which in turn triggered a decline in the Metropolitan Police’s ability to solve investigations by 3%. Intriguingly, austerity-driven budget cuts fed through directly into house prices, with local house prices near closed police stations falling by 5%. Citizens’ reporting of low-severity offences also fell.
The station closures did not decrease the number of front-line officers, which allowed the study to isolate the effect of decreased proximity to police stations.
Ken Marsh, chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said: “Cuts have consequences and we’re seeing that. With front counters being shut, public accessibility is lost. People say they never see a police officer.”
In an interview with Byline Times, economic criminologist Elisa Facchetti said she became interested in the subject when she learnt of the “crazy” policy of cutting police forces by 20% and closing police stations.
No one had analysed its impact. Facchetti looked through outcomes of investigations at criminal incident levels – in effect, finding out which reported crimes had an outcome such as a criminal charge. She compared similar areas – small neighbourhoods of around 700 houses – before and after station closures. The difference was that one area was very close to a police station that was shut down, and another was not.
She found what should have been obvious to decision-makers: “Once a station shuts down, the police officers who normally attend crime scenes are far away and take longer to get there, which is very established in criminology. Response time is very important for police effectiveness. You find witnesses and proof by being there quickly.” From a criminal’s point of view, there are fewer police officers around – even if overall police numbers haven’t declined.
“If there’s less police around, the perceived probability of apprehension goes down. Criminals do stuff strategically. It would not be rational to conduct a robbery in front of a police station. Abolish the police station, and they feel more able to do it,” Facchetti said.
House prices are a measure of the valuation of the neighbourhood and how safe it is perceived. They fell when a police station closed. “People are less willing to buy a house if the nearest police station shuts down. The impression is that decreased police presence leads to an increase in criminality, and this has the biggest impact on already-deprived areas, increasing already-existing inequalities,” the academic added.
She has presented the paper at the London School of Academics – where there were some officials from the Met Police attending. “Many of them agree,” she said.
“The Tories were campaigning at the last mayoral election to reopen police stations, which is funny as many closed down under the Tories,” the Institute for Fiscal Studies researcher noted.
The official narrative treats closures as “increasing efficiency,” but officers see the opposite, Facchetti added.
But what is the alternative to station closures when police budgets are being cut? “It’s true that they were subject to a lot of cuts in the past decade. That’s not the fault of the police…But they underestimated the importance of proximity and response times. They thought OK – we can’t fire people, it’s bad and very visible. So they didn’t fire many frontline officers. They fired a lot of back-office staff, and closed stations,” she said.
In a sentence that sums up much of the austerity era, she added: “if you want to save money, you need to make sure you’re not generating more costs by accident.”
Police say they’re investing in online reporting but it accounts for just 2%-5% of all police reports in England. It is “not very important”. In-person reporting accounts for around 8% of all reports. However, this masks its wider role.
“What matters is the more psychological perspective – a ‘broken window’ type of policy. Citizens internalise a lower police presence. They know this as they see house prices decrease. They report less,” she said.
The impact is “a bit crazy”. “You see the number of violent incidents which are reported by phone [where police stations have closed] drop by around 40%, despite incidents going up. People think there’s no point, the police won’t get there in time. Also incidents like shoplifting, or stealing a bike go up,” the postdoctoral fellow told Byline Times.
Confidence in the Met Police is at the lowest levels ever in the wake of racism and sexism scandals. The decline of the “local” police officer, swapped out for officers parachuted in from miles away, may have played a small role in that collapsing trust.
The justice system has also faced enormous cuts over the past decade – including cuts of nearly a third to the Ministry of Justice since 2010, with legal aid cut and courts closed. That will form the next point of study for Facchetti as she explores Britain’s criminal austerity experiment.
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: “Against the backdrop of devastating Government cuts that led to police station closures in London and across the UK, the Mayor has delivered on his commitment to keep at least one front counter open 24 hours, seven days a week in every London borough.
“He has also continued to invest record amounts in the Met and London’s Violence Reduction Unit which has meant violence in the capital has reduced since 2016, with knife crime, gun crime, burglary and teenage homicides all falling – bucking the national trend.”
The Home Office was contacted for comment.