Planning and precision: why policing should be part of the royal commission on the criminal justice system


By Rob Whiteman CBE, CIPFA CEO

With Operation Uplift on the horizon, the start of a new decade offers opportunities for real change within the policing sector. Establishment of a royal commission to “improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process” was promised during the Queen’s Speech last December, and policing needs to be high on its agenda.

NPCC Chair Martin Hewitt addressed the issue earlier this month, making clear his belief that the royal commission should lend part of its focus to policing:

“This is a moment of real opportunity to have a thorough look at policing, what it should deliver, what it should prioritise and how it is structured to do that.”

The last royal commission on criminal justice took place in 1993. Since then, policing has faced some major internal challenges, such as underfunding and understaffing, all while adapting to combat the new, more complicated threats that the sector faces in the digital age. Now more than ever, the efficiency of the policing system needs to be carefully examined so that the pathway can be laid for positive and productive change.

The Queen’s Speech anticipated new laws to strengthen the criminal justice system. However, laws cannot bring about the desired change if in practice there remain obstacles that prevent police forces from carrying out their duties effectively. Attention must be paid to how funding should be spent and what sort of reform is needed to allow police forces to achieve their full potential – questions which can only be answered with greater investigation.

The integrity of the criminal justice system depends upon the government’s willingness to provide policing with the support and resources that it needs to combat crime and protect communities. If the police are in a position where they cannot perform their duties successfully during the early stages of the criminal justice process, then the effect ripples out to every corner of the criminal justice system.  

The current debate on merging the 43 police forces in England and Wales highlights one key issue that the royal commission should consider reviewing: collaboration between police forces. The criminal landscape is ever-changing and the challenges to overcome are becoming increasingly complex. Modern threats such as terrorism, fraud, cyberbullying and online child abuse are widespread, affecting police forces on both a regional and global scale. Collaboration between forces could allow the police to develop a well-rounded, uniform approach to combatting such crimes. The royal commission should explore whether the merging of police forces would help to achieve this and whether it would strengthen the policing system as a whole.

Opinion on this issue remains divided. For example, some within the sector feel that such a merger may lead rural policing to decline as smaller forces are absorbed by the much larger metropolitan bodies. The uncertainty surrounding the idea highlights the need for an in-depth investigation by the commission into the operational success of the present structure of policing and the potential outcomes of structural change.

Of course, there are many other questions that need to be answered in regard to UK policing. The strategic deployment of officers and cooperation between the police and other public sector bodies are also crucial matters that the government needs to take the time to address through rigorous research and careful analysis.

Accurate and informed decisions can only be made once the appropriate research has been carried out. Therefore, the government must thoroughly examine the current situation in order to decide on the best possible actions to take, for the future of policing. 

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