Assessment of police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services has published a report on police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy in 14 police forces. While it finds that most forces are coping well with increasingly complex and changing demands in the face of tighter resources, it also finds evidence of serious weaknesses across several forces.

  "DSCF3484" by Elina Ezera. CC BY 2.0

HMICFRS report

A few weeks ago, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS, formerly Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary) published a report on emerging themes from the first group of PEEL inspections of police forces in England and Wales for 2018/19. PEEL refers to police:

  • effectiveness: how effective a force is at preventing and investigating crime, protecting vulnerable people and tackling serious organised crime;
  • efficiency: how a force manages demand and plans for the future; and
  • legitimacy: how legitimately a force treats the public, how ethically it behaves and how it treats its workforce.

HMICFRS conducts an annual inspection of the performance of each of the 43 police forces in England and Wales and rates them on each of these criteria as outstanding, good or requiring improvement. The report, published a few weeks ago, gives an overview of the emerging themes from the PEEL reports on a group of 14 police forces comprising: City of London, Cumbria, Durham, Dyfed-Powys, Essex, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Humberside, Kent, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, West Midlands and Wiltshire.


Generally, HMICFRS found that the forces were performing well in terms of keeping people safe, reducing crime, using resources efficiently and treating their workforce and the communities they serve fairly and with respect. Equally, however, they also found that several forces are straining under significant pressures as they try to meet growing complex and high-risk demand with dwindling resources. Moreover, these pressures are increasing and are affecting different forces in different way. Although it does not expressly refer to it, the report echoes some of the serious concerns raised by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in their Report Policing for the Future published in October 2018 (see Criminal Justice Notes, November 2018).

Changing environment and demands

The report noted that the nature of demand on policing is changing and is increasingly complex, with the growth of crime online, the need to examine data on personal devices and improvements in identifying and understanding vulnerable victims. This is complemented by a significant growth in serious high-risk crime, such as: homicides, robbery, sexual offences, domestic abuse and crimes involving knives and sharp instruments. These changes are happening at a time when policing is experiencing severe restrictions on resources. In addition to the pervasive effects of budget cuts, for example, most forces are suffering from a high level of detective vacancies. Meeting the growing and changing nature of demand within tighter resource constraints is proving to be the most significant challenge for policing today.

Positive developments

There are some positives in the report’s findings on how forces are coping. Several were responding by using technology to manage demand and resources more effectively. This includes: making use of shared services, adjusting shift patterns to align with peaks in demand, using digital technologies to achieve a speedier response to those at risk and working with academics to understand demand through demographics and ‘big data’. In many forces these advances are complemented by an improved understanding of hidden forms of vulnerability, including: modern slavery, ‘county-lines’ (gangs based in large urban centres using vulnerable people to sell prohibited drugs in small towns and rural areas in other counties) and ‘cuckooing’ (drug dealers taking over the home addresses of  vulnerable persons to store and distribute prohibited drugs). Commendably, there is also evidence of increased awareness and knowledge of how to protect and support people in mental health crisis.

Negative impacts on service delivery

On the other hand, several forces have been less successful in adapting to the new and changing environment. HMICFRS found that there is still significant room for improvement across many forces in aligning resources, skills and planning to changing patterns of demand. While there have been improvements in identifying incidents of domestic abuse, there is still a concern with the number and quality of risk assessments in some forces on domestic abuse, stalking, harassment and honour-based violence. Neighbourhood and local policing, for example, continue to be undermined by a pattern of redeploying local officers to higher-risk work, often in an unplanned reactive manner. Such practices are not being sufficiently monitored in some forces.

Attempting to cope with a wider range of activities is having a negative effect on the quality and speed of police response rates and investigations. In some forces this is leading to in-experienced and under-qualified officers investigating high volume crimes, such as burglary, without appropriate supervision. Investigation failings were found most frequently in these crimes, with a consequential effect on negative outcomes. At least one quarter of the victims were not getting the service they should expect. Poor supervision of investigations was a serious matter of concern, with supervision in as many as one third of cases being rated poor.

Stop and search

The manner in which police officers use their powers and discretion has a critical effect on public trust and confidence in policing, the law and the state. The use of stop and search powers, for example, has been a constant source of friction between the police and marginalised communities; contributing to alienation and, on occasions, serious and widespread rioting. Given the increased reliance on these powers to combat the upsurge in knife crime, it is particularly important that their use is closely and effectively monitored for unfairness or abuse. Once again, however, the report finds that too many forces are still failing to follow best practice on this front.

Some forces don’t monitor a sufficiently comprehensive set of data on how they use stop and search powers. Some are missing opportunities to learn from reviewing body-worn video footage. In 2017, HMICFRS recommended that all forces should monitor and analyse comprehensive stop and search data: to understand the reasons for disparities; to take necessary action on the results of such monitoring and analysis; and to publish the results of the analysis and action by July 2018. Disappointingly, no forces were found to be fully compliant. In particular, there was a lack of monitoring of the ‘find rates’ by ethnicity for different types of search. There was also a slight reduction in the number of stops and searches that satisfied the basic pre-requisite of ‘reasonable suspicion’ compared with 2017. Moreover, not all of the inspected forces had effective or suitable external processes and panels to scrutinise their use of stop and search.

Internal corruption

Rooting out internal corruption in a police force is vitally important not just for improving professionalism and ethical standards within the force, but also for enhancing public confidence in the police and respect for the rule of law. However, the nature of policing and the police organisation is such that rooting out corruption is one of the most difficult challenges to crack. An internal unit focused on tackling corruption is essential, but it is no guarantee of success. HMICFRS found that there was significant room for improvement on this aspect.

Some of the forces have poorly resourced counter-corruption units and significant vetting backlogs. Despite its 2016 recommendation that all members of the police workforce should have at least the lowest level of vetting clearance for the roles, HMICFRS found that some forces still had a lot more work to do to reach that basic level. It also found that some forces did not comply with approved professional practices on strategic risk assessment for corruption and insider threats. In particular, very few forces had fully implemented a 2016 recommendation to seek intelligence on potential abuse of authority for sexual gain.

Health and well-being of police personnel

Last, but not least, is the impact of the changing policing environment on police personnel. HMICFRS found that the health and wellbeing of the police workforce are being adversely affected by pace of change, the increasing exposure to more stressful forms of crime, higher workloads, longer hours and cancellation of leave and rest days. Forces have an inconsistent understanding of the risks associated with these aspects. While forces are increasingly good at providing support following traumatic incidents, they are less effective at providing day-to-day supports. Occupational health services are struggling to meet the demand. Ultimately, a professional and ethical police service cannot be delivered to the highest standards by personnel without the supports to help them cope effectively with the stressful demands generated by the changing policing environment.


The HMICFRS report, together with the HAC report on Policing for the Future, highlights the very real challenges facing policing today and for the years to come. There is no simple blueprint for meeting these challenges in a manner that will ensure the delivery of a professional, ethical and quality policing service for all. Increased resources are vital, but they will not be sufficient in themselves. Much will depend on the capacity of the police organisation and personnel to develop creatively, swiftly and meaningfully in response to the new environment and challenges. Equally, there is an important role for local communities and society as a whole to determine what they need and want from their police service in this changing environment, and how that should be delivered.

Download the June 2019 edition of Criminal Justice Notes