Police bureaucracy: are front-line officers spending 85% of their time with paperwork?

10 July 2012

Arguments about the impact of Government policy on the men and women of the police force are one of the more well-trodden beats for Home Secretary Theresa May and her Labour Shadow Yvette Cooper.

However one particular statistic is frequently quoted in this debate: that police officers spend just 11 per cent of their time 'on the beat'.

It surfaced again during Home Office questions yesterday, when Conservative MP David Ruffley asked the Home Secretary:

"My right hon. Friend will know that in 2010 less than 15% of a patrol officer's time, on average, was spent on patrol. What specific measures has he taken, and will he take, to cut the red tape at the police station that is keeping too many officers off the beat?"

The 11 per cent statisitc itself can be reliably sourced to an HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report dating from 2010, however it is seemingly misunderstood almost as often as it is cited.

The problem for claims such as these is that it isn't clear from the HMIC findings that it is red tape that is keeping too many officers off the beat.

Policing, as you might expect, isn't like many other jobs, and the requirement to man the thin blue line on a 24/7 basis means that a police officer's working year is divided into 1,100 shifts. Of course even police officers need time off to eat and sleep, so the average police officer will work 260 shifts per year.

This means that for every officer on duty at any given point there will need to be three other officers on the payroll.

Furthermore, once annual leave, sickness and other police duties such as attending court are factored in to the equation, seven police officers are needed for every bobby on the beat. Even before we account for paperwork therefore, only 14 per cent of officers employed by police forces are available for front-line duties at any given time.

Rather than less than 15 per cent of a police officer's time being spent on patrol, what HMIC actually found was that at any given time, 11 per cent of officers were available for patrol.

That isn't to say that we should discount the impact that paperwork has on the amount of time police officers have to patrol. HMIC does note that:

"[Police officers' ability to cut crime] is currently hampered by bureaucracy and social obligations."

However, to the uninitiated it might appear from Mr Ruffley's claim that police officers spend 85 per cent of their time at their desks, buried in paperwork. This isn't the case.

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