The Birmingham Post have reported that four West Midlands police forces spent a staggering £2.4m on media relations last year – with budgets rising 72% in the last five years, and though Chief Inspector Mark Payne, head of West Midlands Police’s Press & PR Department said that press releases have helped them trace murderers and locate missing people, it’s worth noting that the chairman of the Dorset Police Federation, Clive Chamberlain claims there’s been a “growth in spin”, calling for the money to be spent on extra police officers.
Though most of us would concede there’s value in the police having a relationship with a media to forward their own aims and publicise important cases to members of the public, there’s more than a strong likelihood that the £1,064,000 spent by West Midlands Police in the current financial year went on more extravagant PR and unnecessary publicity projects than Inspector Payne would have us believe.
The truth is, the police have always historically had a dialogue with the media and journalists and newspapers have always published articles about criminals, unsolved cases and missing people. There is a valuable reciprocal relationship here that no-one would question. What, perhaps, those concerned do want to get to the bottom of is just how police press offices have grown to such a size that they’re siphoning literally millions of pounds away from policing itself?
If crime rates had dramatically improved since 2004/5 when the West Midlands force spent 42% less than it spent last year, then perhaps the results would justify the expenditure (perhaps we’d all advocate a little more press emphasis), but the fact is these departments are expanding at a rate of knots and absorbing huge amounts of public cash and – like Clive Chamberlain asserts – just churning out more spin, promotion and self-congratulation, none of which solves any crimes or protects the safety of local people.
The police do an important job, and the more of their budget that can be diverted to the sort of vital frontline policing we all appreciate the better. As the West Midlands Police Authority lamented at their January conference, their finances are due to be well and truly squeezed and it’s areas like this that they could afford to cut back.