A Common Question: How Many Police Officers Are There in the UK?

UK police officer numbers total
Pie chart shows number of police officers in UK. Source: Home Office, Police Scotland, multiple others.

“There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Mark Twain.

The most common question people ask of UK policing is, “How many police officers are there?” As at 2020, the UK had 166,000 officers. That’s 245 police officers per 100,000 population, or one officer for every 409 people in the UK population, which is now nearly 68,000,000. This is proportionally similar to that of comparable countries like Ireland, Poland, Japan, USA and New Zealand. Nordic countries, Australia and Canada have fewer officers compared to their populations, while our European counterparts in France, Germany, Italy and Spain have proportionally more. This is another ‘Stats Corner’ interest piece blog I hope you find informative.

UK policing totals approximately 166,000 officers.

This consists of: 

  • 129,000 in England & Wales. (including secondments and long-term sick, source: Home Office).
  • 17,000 in Police Scotland. (source: Scottish Police Authority).
  • 7,000 in Northern Ireland. (source: PSNI website).
  • 13,000 in UK national and specialist local forces. (e.g. CNC, BTP, Jersey and others, multiple sources).

The question of officer strength often features in debates about funding, policing priorities and the like, particularly for forces in England & Wales. You hear it particularly from the Police Federation since the government ‘austerity’ programme began in 2010/11, as a response to the 2008 financial hit to public finances. It is also a hot topic raised to this day by government politicians, Police and Crime Commissioners, national police chiefs, police partner agencies, and the public alike. And not to forget of course, among the mutterings of the single-crewed response officer running a busy shift at 2 am, reminiscing about how there were double the number of officers on their section when they joined the police as a probationer all those years ago: “Where did all the response officers go?”. 

The question is also inherent to police promotion and selection processes. Police promotion board questions include role-based, leadership and values-based questions. Painting a brighter picture of the organisation, one that captures the zeitgeist and includes your future contribution as a leader, manager and supervisor, can improve chances of success at promotion. Officer numbers are a feature of policing strategy, planning and decision making. Operating increasingly ‘in the grey’ to deliver effective and efficient policing is a part of a VUCA policing environment; with people as the most important resource, it may be helpful to have an overview of the situation and some context ahead of your promotion opportunity. It is also important for those aiming for the more strategic role of Inspector / Chief Inspector to have a grasp of basic numeracy and statistics, including being able to read graphs (not least for Numerical Reasoning Tests!).

The interesting thing about the question of how many officers are there and how that has changed over the years is: Nobody has ever properly answered it. Until now….

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics…

England & Wales Police Officer Numbers population
Graph shows number of officers in England & Wales since 1946 vs. population growth. Source: Home Office, Parliament publications.

“Political language is designed… to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” – George Orwell.

There are always axes to grind among the interested stakeholders, often using selective statistics to prove their particular point. You’ll see quotes for example like, “This is the biggest increase in officers since [year]…”, “Officer numbers have reduced by [big number] compared to [year]…” or “Not since [year] have there been this few officer numbers…”. For example, look at the three graphs below, showing police officer workforce strength figures for 10, 20, and 30 years. England & Wales force figures are the focus here, since this forms the overwhelming majority of UK officers and are the most accessible figures via the Home Office publications. Each could be used to argue different, emotive points:

  • “Officer numbers butchered in just 10 years!”
  • “Officers slashed to lowest levels since year 2000!”
  • “Officers numbers booming, higher than the 1990s!”
Police officers England Wales since 2010
Police officer numbers since 2000 england and wales
Number of police officer since 1990

None of them state the full picture or answer basic questions of how that relates to changes in the population (as we show now in the chart above), let alone whose decisions caused the reductions in officers. For example, some forces maintained their officer numbers or other workforce functions despite austerity while others preserved civilian staff / IT budgets while reducing frontline officer posts; demonstrating the often-overlooked fact that how government funding and council tax precepts are spent within forces is actually decided by the local Chief Officers. Other more relevant questions going unanswered then relate to how those officers are being used by local forces, what ranks saw more reductions than others (we will cover in a future ‘Stats Corner’ blog!), whether those officers are being used most effectively, how many officers are actually needed to police a population. In summary, it’s all heat, no light. Certainly no enlightenment for the frontline officers who notices fewer colleagues on a shift.

It is important with information to present it in context, with a long-term view, demonstrating the full picture and sources so others can scrutinise the figures. Without this, whatever point you are trying to make, people inherently know that statistics are simply being selectively used to back up a particular talking point (hence the quote about ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’ exists!).

Policing is after all, a service that prides itself on integrity and impartiality as part of values, and traits that sometimes get lost in heated political debates. It is important to maintain these as a police officer, particularly as a promotion candidate; not least when you may be expected to understand performance and graphical information in more detail. This is definitely an expectation of skillsets especially at more senior and strategic levels and may be tested as officers progress, e.g. from Inspector and Chief Inspector and above.

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75 Years of Service: A Rollercoaster of Police Officer Numbers

England & Wales Police Officer Numbers population
Chart shows number of officers in England & Wales since 1946 vs. population growth. Source: Home Office, Parliament publications.

This image shows the fullest picture of how many police officers there are in England & Wales, and how this has changed over time. In absolute terms, police officer numbers increased drastically from the 50,000 or so officers in place after the Second World War, to 120,000 in the early 1980s. The growth stalled a little, but then continued a gradual climb to 126,000 officers in 1993 and 1994. From there, it declined to 122,000 by 2000, at a time where population to be policed was beginning a particularly rapid increase akin to population growth in the 1960s. Officer growth soon accelerated however, with a massive surge in numbers from 2002, culminating in 140,000 officers by 2006. This was maintained and even nudged up to 142,000 in 2010. The decline then began in 2011 to 120,000 officers by 2018. The uptick in 2020 returning to levels not seen since the mid-2000s indicates the start of ‘Uplift’. 

Those are the simple, unemotive statistical descriptors. The increases and declines have spanned governments of all colours and budgets. People are well aware of recent trends and everyone has an opinion on whether 120,000 cops are enough to police the population of England & Wales in modern times. It appears everyone is now in agreement it is not enough, with funding being significantly increased again under the title of ‘Uplift’. This aims to reintroduce the 20,000 officers Chief Constables shed in response to central government constraints on their budgets.

Here’s another way of looking at the changes in police officer numbers in England & Wales, the year-on-year percentage changes…

Officer numbers annual change
Chart shows annual change in officer numbers, England & Wales.

The interesting part comes when you compare this to the general population. It is a given that the complexity of demand has increased, along with a number of other demands on policing. It’s all part of the challenges to policing that promotion candidates would do well to recognise and articulate how they can contribute, along with having an eye on the future.

Police officers per population England Wales
Chart shows police officers per 100k population, England & Wales.

With population increases, the police are often playing catch up. Technology has and will always change in how policing is delivered. You can read more about the future in the CoP Police Future 2040 report, some good reading for your CPD. What will cops look like then? Dredd the thought, will they be judge, jury and executioner?

I hope you find this series of statistical insights into policing useful and interesting. Watch this space for more updates in the coming months.

Kind Regards, Steve.

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