Coffee House

How a TARDIS could help the police

29 April 2013

11:52 AM

29 April 2013

11:52 AM

If we had a time machine and could take a stroll down our local high street twenty years ago, we’d discover a place alive with activity. As well as shoppers hunting through famous outfits such as Woolworths, JJB Sports and Comet, we might see queues snaking at the local bank branch, someone waiting their turn outside the telephone box and couples scouring the travel agents’ window for a last minute, cut-price deal.

Today, it’s a different story. We can browse the entire planet’s products on our phones, make an Amazon purchase with the swipe of a finger and track our order online with precision. We can drive to out-of-town shopping malls or supermarkets where we can park, stay dry and get everything we need all in one trip. We bank increasingly online or by telephone, and buy our holidays online – rating our experiences for fellow travellers on TripAdvisor.

The world has changed and the companies that are thriving today understood that they needed to change with it. Driven by new technology, parts of our services sector have undergone a genuine revolution. Convenience is king – and to survive and be successful, our shops, banks and supermarkets have had to constantly evolve, adapting their business models in response to the changing attitudes and preferences of consumers.

This has seen successful companies closing uneconomical and underused shops and branches, investing in their online infrastructure and capability, and reaching out to customers with innovative advertising routed through social media, viral campaigns and interactive gaming. Smaller specialist retailers are closing down their stores but increasing their margins by offering their products to larger stockists and e-tailers. And as we demand higher standards of customer service across the board, this is being reflected in the renewed use of UK call centres, 24 hour services, and new staff training and incentivisation programmes.


Our public services have struggled to keep up with this revolution. In fact, many are still blindly pursuing the old, out-dated models. Take policing: there are 136 police stations in London, but some see fewer than seven visitors a day. Three times as many visitors enter police stations simply to hand in lost property or ask directions, rather than actually report crime. These stations are expensive – often large buildings, sitting on prime real estate and smack-bang in the middle of town. But if you gave the public a choice between more bobbies or more buildings, bobbies would win every time.

The fact that so many police stations are underused means that the public have already made important choices about how they want to report crime and engage with the police. So now it’s time for the police to respond. The lessons from retail and banking are that people increasingly want fewer big service centres, more innovative avenues for engaging with services and stronger online presence for maximum convenience.

Policy Exchange’s new report, Rebooting the PC, is all about how to hardwire innovation into policing structures and cop culture. In it, we recommend that the police should close many outdated, expensive police stations and instead embed new contact points in shopping centres, supermarkets, hospitals and local shops. These would be places where people could report crime, discuss local concerns, deal with lost property, provide forms, make complaints and arrange police statements. Not only would this save money and thus protect officer numbers, it would also offer a much better service to the public – especially if services were provided in places like the Post Office, whose footprint and network would actually increase public access.

We also conceive of a new, modern version of the 1970s ‘TARDIS’ police box, as made famous in Doctor Who. These would be technologically-enabled police contact points, featuring two-way audio-visual technology that would allow people to communicate directly with police staff online, without having to be physically present. These are already used successfully in Rotterdam (where there is even a 3D Virtual Police Officer) and could now be translated for the UK context.

There is a growing gap between the quality of customer service we now take for granted in our everyday lives and that which we receive when we come into contact with public services. If we don’t start to close it, we run the risk of consistently dashing people’s expectations, frustrating aspiration and fuelling disillusionment with government.

Innovation in policing might take the form of a TARDIS, but we don’t need a time machine to step into the future. We just need to learn the right lessons from the revolutions in retail and banking, and listen to what the public are already telling us about the way they want to engage with the police.  If we do, we’ll begin to meet the public where they are, dealing with people in a way that suits them and really putting them in the driving seat. That way, we can start the important work of rebooting the PC.

Max Chambers is head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange.

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Show comments
  • s_o_b

    And so where, given a choice of shopping centres (closed), supermarkets (closed or not that well equipped, hospitals (er, full of ill people) and local shops (closed) will Mr Plod decide to park the drunken, fighting, vomiting or drug-fuelled louts who make up such a large proportion of British yoof in the early hours of a saturday morning? Where will they hold ID parades, interview suspects or victims of serious crimes? I wonder if Tesco’s car park is the best place for all the police vans and cars to be kept? How about police firearms? In a cupboard behind the customer service counter, or locked away with the cigarettes whose packets we are no longer even allowed to look at in case we are somehow polluted?

    Not sure this one has been thought all the way through….

  • Slim Jim

    Apparently, PCSOs are going to be replaced with Daleks…

    • itdoesntaddup

      K9 style, they would be called 3LO …. LO,LO,LO, PC calling…

  • Molly

    A “Tardis” phone app would be better. Probably cheaper to establish and countless of them.

  • HookesLaw

    Where will the police go to do all their paperwork?

    • Slim Jim

      If they set the co-ordinates properly, about anywhere in the known universe.

  • Austin Barry

    “That way, we can start the important work of rebooting the PC.”

    The irony is that you have, in your poor pun, unintentionally identified the real problem with the police.

    • Daniel Maris

      Give ’em some cycling shorts, says I…

      Police on bikes are the best way to get the benefits of on the ground patrols but also speed of response. A Police cyclist can take short cuts, mount pavements, dodge past traffic.

      They can be battery assisted to ease the energy expenditure on a long shift.

      The problem with the Police has been a general reluctance to reacqaint themselves with the British weather. Understandable perhaps, but not conducive to good policing.

      • Barakzai

        I’m visualising battery assisted police officers . . . Wouldn’t an embedded wind-up clockwork mechanism be cheaper still?

  • tom w huxley

    If they bring back the police box it won’t look like a TARDIS… the BBC trademarked the look years ago.