Voters in 41 police areas across England and Wales are choosing the first ever police and crime commissioners.

Clearly, crime rates and police strength will be leading concerns for residents, although the new commissioners will have limited control over total staffing levels.

All police forces are downsizing as we speak thanks to a cut in their funding from central government.

But David Cameron has consistently defended the coalition’s approach, saying frontline police officer numbers are being protected as forces implement budget cuts.

Let’s take a look back at some of the claims then try to figure out what’s really happening.

“In cash terms, once precept forecasts are taken into account, we are talking about a 6 per cent reduction in total over four years.”
Theresa May, 16 August 2011

Technically true, but not the real story. The slice of police funding that comes from central government is due to fall by 20 per cent over the four years to 2015 in real terms (the 6 per cent thing only works if you ignore inflation).

Factor in expected rises in the cash that constabularies get from council tax and the average total police budget is forecast to drop by 14 per cent, though there are big regional differences.

The latest round-up of staffing projections from the police watchdog, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), shows that chief constables are planning to lose 32,400 staff in total by 2015. Some 15,000 will be police officers and 1,700 will be community support officers (PCSOs).

“This report makes it clear that the front line of policing is being protected overall and that the service to the public has largely been maintained.”
Nick Herbert, 3 July 2012

Yes and no. The report referred to by the then Police Minister is the latest HMIC study on how chief constables are implementing the cuts.

It’s clear that forces are making an honest effort to do what the government says they ought to be doing – shifting police officers away from back-office roles to frontline jobs.

HMIC says the percentage of officers on the frontline will rise from 67 per cent to 74 per cent by 2015.

But of course that is a larger proportion of a smaller number. Overall frontline strength is predicted to fall by 5,800 officers.

“The number of neighbourhood police officers has gone up by 2,360 since 2010.”
David Cameron, 24 October 2012

Number 10 told us that this was the figure for neighbourhood police teams, including fully warranted police officers and PCSOs. This appears to tally with figures we’ve seen from the independent House of Commons library, but it may be best taken with a pinch of salt.

From March 2010 to March 2012, PCSOs on neighbourhood teams have fallen from 16,603 to 13,880, Commons researchers found.

Over the same period neighbourhood police officers went up from just over 15,000 to more than 20,000 – cancelling out the cut in PCSOs and producing something close to the figure quoted by Mr Cameron.

But if you look closely at the figures this may well all be due to an accounting change rather than evidence of a surge of boots on the ground.

Until 2008/09, forces used to count all bobbies out walking the beat or patrolling in cars as one category for the purposes of reporting their staffing levels to HMIC.

Neighbourhood and response officers used to be counted as one category, comprising all bobbies out walking the beat or patrolling in cars.

Then they split the category into “neighbourhoods” and “response”, but it’s clear that not every force adapted to the change straight away.

Some constabularies put zero in the “neighbourhoods” column in 2009 and 2010, preferring to count all the officers as “response”, before changing the way they filled out the form in 2011 and 2012 and putting hundreds of police officers under “neighbourhoods”.

This can only be a change on paper, rather than a genuine surge in strength from 2010 to 2012. It’s not as if Avon and Somerset Police had no cops walking the streets in 2009, then suddenly had hundreds the year after.

The effect of all this is to artificially make it look like there has been a real increase in neighbourhood policing, which is presumably why Mr Cameron has been so keen to zero in on this newly-created category of police officer.

If HMIC continued to count all beat cops and response crews together like they did before 2008/09, we would see a cut of more than 1,200 officers from 2010 to 2012.

“There is a genuine, real increase in offending.”
Chris Weigh, 29 May 2012

The acting chief constable of Lancashire appeared to give voice to the fear of many government critics – that a thinning of the blue line would result in a crime wave.

It’s important as Mr Cameron has repeatedly made the opposite point in parliament – that even as the cuts take effect, crime rates are falling.

On a national level, the Prime Minister’s right about that, and Mr Weigh seems to be wrong about overall crime in his patch too.

Academics are divided over whether cutting policy numbers increases crime.

The think-tank Policy Exchange concluded in their report on policing last year that “there is no simple causal relationship between the number of police officers and the level of crime”.

On the other hand, Steven Levitt, author of the bestseller Freakonomics, is among economists who do think hiring more officers tends to cut offending rates.

It’s certainly a complex area thanks to the multiple factors that cause crime and the difficulties of statistical analysis.

Critics of the government who say that these cuts will inevitably lead to more crime probably ought to be more cautious.

Equally, it would be wrong for Mr Cameron to use a lull in crime figures as evidence that his government is doing something right.

By Patrick Worrall