A new study shows that the closure of police stations in Waltham Forest likely was a false economy, and may have actually aggravated criminality

From 2011 onwards, Waltham Forest saw police stations in Leyton, Leytonstone, and Walthamstow close, leaving only Chingford open.

There was much disquiet about this at the time, but senior police officers and their allies assured residents that money would be saved without any discernible impact on policing or criminality.

Now a paper by Dr. Elisa Facchetti of the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggests that the proponents of closure were almost certainly wrong.

Dr. Faccetti focuses on London as a whole in the period 2011-16, when the number of open police stations declined by 50 per cent, and measures the impact of closures by examining the volume of crime and other relevant indicators in areas (‘census blocks’) around where each closure took place.

Her conclusions are fourfold:

‘First, police station closures lower police deterrence and increase violence nearby closed stations. I estimate that…violent crimes, measured as assaults and murders, increase by 11%. This impact is sudden and persists overtime, and shows that higher distance [from police stations] lowers police deterrence. However, this effect is non-linear in distance: the reduction in police deterrence is concentrated in blocks surrounding closed stations, and it gradually decays as distance increases. This evidence indicates that the impact is driven not only by reduced police visibility around closed stations but, more importantly, by longer response times’.

‘Second, the decline in police effectiveness is exclusively attributed to a deterioration in police ability to investigate and collect evidence necessary to clear crimes, rather than changes in the pool of reports. I estimate that following the closures the police likelihood to clear crime falls by 0.7 percentage points (p.p), equivalent to a 3.7% drop with respect to the baseline clearance rate’.

‘Third, police station closures discourages citizens’ cooperation with law enforcement. Using victimization survey data, I estimate a 0.6 p.p. drop in reported incidents, which accounts for 17% of the baseline reporting rate’.

‘Fourth, shutting down police stations reduces the social welfare of local residents. Intuitively, house prices not only reflect the direct costs associated with crime changes…but also the indirect costs, such as the loss of local amenities and changes in perceptions of safety, that may arise as a result of the closures… I document an average reduction in local house prices, entirely driven by high-crime and deprived blocks. Such uneven impacts generate substantial distributional consequences, further intensifying pre-existing inequalities’.

She sums up as follows:

‘While supporters of the closures point at the reduced spending for the public finances, I show that the accrued savings for the criminal justice system do not outweigh the fiscal and social costs induced by the closures…. I estimate that for each pound saved by the public administration, £3 to [£]7 of additional costs are borne by…society’.

In recent years, discussion about crime in Waltham Forest has been distorted by senior policeman who spout rubbish; self-appointed experts who mistake their prejudices for evidence; paid outside consultants who promote their own agendas; and councillors and council staff who seem intent on closing down the space for residents to freely come together and debate the issues (see links).

Dr Facchetti’s paper, with its careful sifting of data, is a timely reminder that a different, and more fruitful, approach is possible.

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