Putting Detectives in Uniform Research

Put Detectives in Uniform

With challenges to public spending forecast, alternative ways of doing things are needed (OBR, 2024). According to Deming (1986) the emphasis should be on quality outcomes, and systems should be put in place with such outcomes in mind.

That means ways of doing things should be open to scrutiny, measured against outcomes rather than just tradition. In this instance research insights due to be published in Police Professional Journal (August, 2024; Coxhead), offer some adaptive thinking on how quality outcomes in policing might be achieved. Its core research intention is to provoke debate about current policy and practice, against a contextual backdrop of substantial challenges in funding and performance.

Whilst we perhaps would all wish for simply more of everything right away, the police service estate has been run down so much over the last decade, it will take time to re-build from the lost generation. In the process of the long re-building needed, we could explore some incremental quick wins.

What are detectives for?

Strategy should come before structure (Chandler, 1962) so in this instance, the role of detectives are considered, first through a strategic lens, to then inform structural tactics. Elmsley (2006) charts the rationale of the police detective, as being in plain clothes, to enable a certain freedom for clandestine work in order to detect crime, thereby separating the role from that of the patrol officer’s more preventative function.   

Already we have a problem with definitions and roles. Firstly, detection levels are woeful, and, secondly, there is little, if any, patrol prevention function anymore. Mainly due to funding cuts, policing the UK has become largely reactive, and triaged at that.  

Changing crime and workloads

Reactive officers, usually operating at a minimum Professionalising Investigation Programme (PIP) level 1, have increasingly been required to handle more complex cases, not least because of the Internet and changing offending patterns, and internal workforce workload saturation.

Investigators, nowadays, who tend to handle more PIP level 2 cases, and upwards, are a mixture of warranted and non-warranted personnel. This most recent research concerns itself specifically with warranted personnel, although the principles involved might be applicable across the wider workforce.

Public funding and the tax burden

The UK General Election has stimulated much discussion from all political parties about the need to invest in more police, against a bleak financial situation. Police numbers fell from 2010, then rose back during the national Uplift programme, but attrition rates have affected specialists, like detectives, in particular (Institute for Government, 2023).

There has been particular recent acknowledgement of the need to regain public trust at the local level, with confidence levels dropping (Independent Office for Police Conduct, 2022). Concerns over a rise in violence, particularly involving knives, have increased, and cases such as the murder of Olivia Pratt-Korbel, in 2022, have also highlighted the importance of community intelligence in crime investigation and detection.

Cumulative effects of cuts

The cumulative effect of funding cuts, since 2010, in restructuring policing functions away from neighbourhoods, and in restricting the scope of prevention, proactive and investigative depth, is that policing has become more removed from communities, less trusted, less respected, and in some cases, less relevant (Facchetti, 2021). Effectively, this amounts to a retreat from the streets.

The task now is to re-build policing to win back the support and trust of communities and improve the quality of investigations to enable better justice outcomes. Given the bleak financial situation, any creative ways to achieve more with less must be worth exploring: in this case putting detectives into uniform.  

The police need the public

There are many stereotypes about policing, and detectives in particular, which seem to suggest that the police operate in isolation from the public psyche (Sparks, 1992). The reality is that most information, which later becomes coded as intelligence, comes from the public. Although technology has shifted this dynamic to an extent, with forms of CCTV and digital recordings, it is still the case that without information known by someone, somewhere out there, investigations can fall flat on their face (College of Policing, 2017).

In removing the police from public encounters that can facilitate information and intelligence gathering, investigation, as an activity, has been undermined. Having detectives behind closed doors, and the the furthest away from the richest source of intelligence and investigatory source (the public), nowadays makes little sense. Given the abysmal current detection rates, putting detectives into the public gaze, to enable public interaction, helps build both trust and dynamic investigative outreach.

Mission drift

There was a time, arguably, when detectives were mixing in their own way with the public, perhaps in a targeted way, to glean information. But that is seldom now true, with most being desk-bound cases workers trying to manage backlogs.

The myth of detectives has waned just as Dixon of Dock’s image has, because work volume and scarce resourcing has redefined what policing is; little of that change being for the better. The rationale for detectives nowadays is due a refresh for contemporary realities where internalised specialist elitism means nothing to the public  who despair at poor clear up rates (ONS, 2024, show the average detection rate is just over 5% in England and Wales).

Pragmatic creativity

Difficult times need creative solutions. This latest research does not suggest all detective functions should be in uniform. Nor should those that could be, are all the time. Covert operations, for example, should remain covert, just as their important function is designed.

But, there are many benefits in having increased flexibility across warranted detectives to wear uniforms (with appropriate detective livery) at times. The benefits would be to help upskill more junior staff (in a young workforce) in practical policing street craft, engender a more joined-up approach across units, open up more direct contact with the public to better share information, and ultimately, improve visibility,  trust and investigative outcomes.


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