14 min read

pripiski policing: the dynamics of police corruption in the UK

Austerity, Soviet factories, and police corruption.

If you’ve ever thought, “I wonder what the Japanese call the revolving door between government and the private sector”, then wander over to the Global Informality Project and have a look at its collection of articles about grift around the world.

There you’ll find out that the Japanese call it amakudari or “descent from Heaven”.

Spend enough time on the website and you’ll begin to see that grift is the shadow of formal work. For every change in formal working practices, there is a corresponding movement in dodgy ones.

The former Soviet Union is a pretty good example of this. Russian corruption vocab changes as the Russian political economy changes. E.g.:

  • (Putinism): Chernukha : “the blackening”. Once a term used to describe late Soviet declinism, it now refers to state PR campaigns that damage the reputations of out-of-favour businessmen.

  • (Shock therapy & the kakistocratic 90s): Krysha: “roof”. A protection racket run by a criminal gang, providing services such as debt collection and the enforcement of other contracts.

  • (Soviet era): Pripiski: “add-ons”. False reporting, or plan fraud. The exaggeration of production figures to comply with externally set targets.[1]

It’s this last word, pripiski, that I want to talk about today. I think it can help us understand the issues with policing in the UK during the austerity era (let’s call it 2010 to 2017). These issues were described to me in dispiriting detail by a retired police officer, who lost her enthusiasm for the job in these years.

She talked about the mislabelling of crimes, single-crewing (going out on patrol alone), and the shortcuts taken by officers. I've included excerpts from these stories below. Taken together, they make the police look rather like a Soviet factory dabbling in a bit of pripiski.

This isn’t surprising. The challenges faced by factory and police force are similar. Both are subject to ever-increasing expectations set by far-off bodies (in one case, the Home Office. In the other, some random Moscow ministry). Both must meet those expectations with fewer and fewer resources (the number of police officers fell by 14.3% between 2010 and 2019). And if the leaders of either institution fail to meet those expectations, then they’ll suffer political and reputational consequences.

In other words: do more with less or pay the price.


Well, you can improve your systems and become more productive. That takes time and is difficult in sprawling public bodies like the police. Many thrusting management consultants, their careers at full sail, have run aground on the treacherous rocks of public sector reform.

You can also demand more from your remaining resources. This happened during the austerity years and it left police officers broken – from Superintendents to ordinary officers.

If productivity reforms aren’t enough and you’ve exhausted your existing cohort of officers, then you’re left with one last option to stop the baton of Damocles from falling; you must channel your inner Soviet factory and find ways of overstating your output – get frisky with the pripiski.

A recruitment poster for the forensics department of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary (2013).

Mislabelling crimes

I went to a house. I said it was a burglary because someone tried to enter the premises…trespass, commit damage, go in, search the house. But we don't know, at that stage, what has been taken because the owners are not there. I went to put it on as a crime because you've got to go back and crime it. They said to me on the phone, "but we haven't got anything stolen?

"Not that I'm aware of because I can't speak to the owners."…

”It's not burglary then is it?"

"What is it?"

She said, "criminal damage?"

I said, "how am I going to put criminal damage when they've ransacked the house? I've got to put it down as a burglary".

"No, no, no, until we find out what has gone, if anything, we put it down as criminal damage".

So we crimed it as criminal damage. That happened on a number of cases.

How does that look? We're going down on burglaries, not because they're not happening, [but] because we're criming them as criminal damage or an accident or whatever we're criming it as. Therefore, the statistics show us that we're doing really well as a police force, but [as for] the actual offence...”

This is bad law. The offence of burglary doesn’t require anything to be stolen. You can commit the offence if you merely intend to steal something and attempt to steal something once inside the house. Ransacking a house is clearly an attempt to steal something.

This is our first example of a theme that recurs: when a police force is presented with a choice (do we crime it as burglary or criminal damage?), and that choice contains a glimmer of ambiguity (does a ransacked house constitute an attempt to steal something?), a target-obsessed police force will use that ambiguity as cover and act in the manner that best helps the force meet its targets.

The appearance of good policing – as measured by output targets, metrics, and KPIs – is prioritised over the reality of good policing, and this prioritisation of the appearance of output over actual output is the very essence of pripiski.

This burglary story also shows the limpness of Theresa May’s promise to scrap the culture of police targets. The Home Office may have removed some central targets, but the target culture remained during the austerity years.

Solo: a single-crewed story

I remember one day we went into a training day. We sat down and we had the Assistant Chief Constable come down, because the numbers had dropped, not the numbers of the police officers, it was the numbers of the arrest rate and the numbers of vehicles visible in the community. That was about 2011. We had the Assistant Chief Constable he came down and he said:

"right okay, we've got to start having you all single-crewed, and the reason for it is because we want more cars out and about. We want more police officers on the street."

“How are we going to achieve that? We can't!”

But he said, "we can, and we can do that by you two no longer being crewed together."

…we used to parade 35, 40 police officers [on a night shift]. We would all be in the same room. [This went down] to about three or four officers parading on a night shift. That's including the sergeant. So, not many. From 40 odd to three… over the last 10 or 11 years we ended up having no more than 10 officers on shift. Not only you have a lot less officers, you had a lot more calls that you had to respond to, but you also had to be visible. And you have to be single crewed. That changes a lot of things.

… the Home Office wants to make sure that there is more visibility, but the more visibility doesn't come by more officers, it comes by PCSOs now, and it comes with single crewing. So, you will see 10 cars arriving outside your house, but it's actually only 10 officers, because five of them have to go and do an area search. The other two are doing house to house, and the others are just coming to speak to you and whoever else is in the house. You might have 10 cars, but it's not actually a huge incident. It's just what you see…

["What does it feel like to be single-crewed?"]

Awful. It is awful. Imagine a nightshift. And this happened numerous times. You follow a vehicle, you're in a car, you have to do a self-assessment. You think, "right, okay, is it safe for me to stop this vehicle?"

If it's not safe, then you don't stop it. But I will do a 10a, a moving vehicle check... And I'm telling them [on the radio] that I am [at a location], "I can see two people".

The call comes back, "yeah, this vehicle is registered to an address in [a nearby City]. There’s no outstanding issues on the vehicle. There is no warnings. Fine."

Okay, I can put my lights on and stop the vehicle. Obviously, my colleagues know where I am because I've told them where I am. I stop the vehicle… [I] get out. I'm single crewed. And I asked the driver to step out of the car. The driver did step out of the car. He moved across.

As for the passenger: there was a strong smell of cannabis in the vehicle. I asked for backup... There was no other vehicle that was available. Okay, I still have to do what I need to do.

[This is] three o'clock in the morning. The passenger is doing something. I can't see what he's doing, and I've got to have my eyes on the driver. I wasn't happy with the passenger because the passenger was agitated. You could tell.

Right or wrong, I had to do something with a driver. He didn't cause any problems. He was good as gold. I cuffed him and I put him in the back of my car.

…And, in a way, it is unlawful for me to put cuffs on the driver, because at that point, I have no reason to put cuffs on. So really, I shouldn't have cuffed him because that is an assault. But I had no other choice, because I knew that something wasn't right with the passenger…

…I went to see the passenger, and the passenger was concealing a knife - a proper knife - in the back of the driver’s seat. So, at that point, I called for backup again. And I said [to myself]: “right, okay, that is an offensive weapon. And I'm going to be arresting someone here, if not both of them...”

…You've got a choice, really, you either stop a vehicle that has no markers, or you don't stop it, and you let them go. And you think, “well, it could have been something but I haven't got the intelligence”.

But by stopping it... you're putting yourself at risk as a single-crewed officer.

This is another example of a police force obsessed with appearances.

Once again the police are faced with a choice: should we send officers out on their own?

Single-crewing increases the number of units out on the streets, giving more intel, greater capacity to respond to more incidents and the illusion of a large police presence.

But single-crewing leads to:

  • Officers being in danger (see above);
  • Officers taking potentially unlawful steps (see the above arrest) to avoid danger;
  • Officers not intervening in difficult situations for fear of being harmed (but where a double-crewed team could have intervened without such fear);
  • Less scrutiny of poor policing. Who pulls up the single-crewed officer on their mistakes?
  • None of the other benefits of partnership, such as companionship and the shared processing of trauma.

Let’s put on our Soviet hard hats. Which option, single-crewed or double-crewed, is most pripiski? Which option helps us keep up appearances?

Well, the benefits of double-crewing are hard to measure. They relate to the quality of police work. What data do you use to measure a police officer’s subjective feelings of being unsafe, or of losing control? That’s a hard problem.

Single-crewing meanwhile gives benefits that are easily quantifiable. It’s simple to measure response times, the number of incidents responded to, and the number of arrests made. Lots of easy numbers!

It also helps keep up appearances in a literal sense. As our officer told us, single-crewing was expanded to give the impression of a well-resourced police force.

You might say that this is the police making the best of a bad situation, making fewer resources stretch further. We defeated Napoleon’s massed columns by thinning our troops into lines, why not do the same with traffic stops on the A40?

However, this analysis ignores the real harms caused by single-crewing. Senior officers would have been aware of those harms when they prioritised targets over quality. But who cares? What matters is what’s measured.

To continue my overwrought Soviet factory metaphor: this is like a steel girder factory making thinner girders to make the steel go further. Yes, you can produce more of them to meet your production targets, but they won’t be as strong, and one day you will suffer the consequences of installing weak girders across the country.

[Disclaimer: I don’t know anything about girders. Please do not press me on this.]

The unalienable right to an easy life

Easy life no.1

There were times that I used to take in the DV books, the domestic violence booklets. And because I would go to domestic incidents, I would always fill it up. That was one of my things: fill up the domestic violence booklet so that we always have something there (just in case: you never know with domestic violence). And I used to go back in [to the station] and because I had about 20 DV booklets it would be:

"Oh, you brought them back in..."

"what do you mean? You send me jobs that are domestic related. I've got to fill it in."

And he picked them up, and he threw them in the bin.

I said, "what the fuck are you doing?”

“I'm throwing them in the bin."


"Because it's too much paperwork."

"You take them out of that bin!"

"Don't you dare talk to me like that!"

"I will talk to you like that... that is my job. I have filled these in. And I've gone to every job filling them in."…

You've got to put your foot down. It doesn't matter if you're the only police officer and you've got a sergeant or guvnor or whoever - It doesn't matter…if you think morally something is right and something's not right, you have to voice your opinion. And a lot of people don't. A lot of people will say, "what do you want me to put down?"

I didn't do that. I didn't do that. I could have had the progression, but I never did…

Easy life no. 2

The politics are horrendous. And again, it was about five years ago, six, seven years ago, probably. The home office wants the numbers, and they want the statistics. And every month in briefing: if you had 10 or 12 officers, we'd all sit around the table. And then they would bring up the projector and on the projector you have "PC so and so". All the PCs on shift...

"you've done eight arrests. You've done four arrests. You've done three. You've done eleven. And you've done one."

You would get penalised for the number of arrests. But that's not fair. Again, it's not fair on the officers. You don't know what jobs I have to deal with. And then a lot of us became arrest hungry...

"I'm going out tonight, I'm going to nick the first person that I see in the car."

Regardless, you would go out, and it would be a £1 KitKat that someone had stolen. Knick him. Bring him into custody.

Is that really proportionate? …Have they committed any other crimes? No. [It should be] "I'll tell you what, put that kitkat back or go and pay for it." Do it properly, so that you can get the public to trust the police again.

And once you bring them in…some people have never, ever dealt with the police before. They don't know the process. They don't know anything. But you bring them in. And what you say to them is:

"If you say you did it, I will give you a caution. You'll be out within an hour. Is that okay?"

"Oh, okay yeah. What do you want me to say?"

Just say, "yeah, it was me. I did it. Sorry. Put my hand up. No problem."

“Is that it?”

"Yeah, that's it".

Go in. Do the interview. They say exactly what you've told them to say, because they're thinking, "I'll be out in an hour." And they're actually out in an hour, but that caution remains in the system. It remains with them.

It's not fair, but when I go back to see my sergeant. I've got a tick in the box. And that tick in the box says, "Well done, you've made an arrest. Well done. Another one tomorrow, yeah?".

And then you do the same thing again tomorrow.

If making the decision to single-crew is an expression of pripiski at a senior level, these two stories show its influence among the rank and file. Both stories are examples of officers taking shortcuts (binning paperwork, convincing teenagers to take cautions) to give the impression of being on top of their work.

Why do they take these shortcuts?

Maybe they’re particularly bad people, or perhaps they’re average people who make bad decisions because they are underslept, underpaid, and overworked.

I think the latter is more likely. The combination of high workloads and targets – whether implied or express – creates incentives for officers to take shortcuts.

If you fill in that domestic violence paperwork, you get home later, you sleep less, you have less time and energy for your family and for the work stuff that you think is important ('real policing': being out on the beat, stopping crime rather than recording crime - that’s what you got into the job to do, isn’t it?). And if you don't fill it in, the force looks better because domestic violence has the appearance of being down.

If you don’t pressure that teenager to take a caution, you have more paperwork to fill in, you get home later, you sleep less, you have less time and energy for your family and for the work stuff that you think is important ('real policing': being out on the beat, stopping crime rather than recording crime – that’s what you got into the job to do, isn’t it?). And if you do pressure that teenager to take a caution, the force looks better because you’ve resolved a crime. Besides, it’s a caution for shoplifting – who cares?!

These incentives are real, and a tired human brain is more than capable of twisting them into a powerful moral argument for taking the shortcut. Yes, bad things might happen to you if you do take a shortcut: misconduct proceedings, guilt (for doing a bad job, and letting down public). But those bad things are less certain and immediate than the hassle of doing things by the book.


I was originally going to call this blog post “Potemkin Policing”. In that apocryphal story Catherine the Great’s courtier, Greg Potemkin, arranged for a portable village of beautiful façades to be erected on Catherine’s route through Crimea. Once she had passed through the village, the façades would be hurriedly dismantled and re-assembled further along her route, for her to pass through again. I liked the image of Theresa May as Catherine the Great, surveying endless façades, this time built from police data.

I ditched Potemkin and plumped for pripiski, the Soviet analogy, because it sounded quite funny and because it better captures the relationship at play here, between targets and resources.

For a given institution, if you raise expectations and targets at the same time as cutting resources, then you either force that body to become more productive or you force that body to cut corners and pretend that it is more productive (or the organisation misses all its targets). And that corner cutting shades into corruption when the institution does sensitive public sector work.

This begs the question: is my institution the sort of institution that will become more productive or is it the sort of institution that will start to cut corners?

Hmm. Are the police a lean team of start-up types, able to drive new efficiencies with flat hierarchies, scrums, software solutions and all that stuff? Or are they an ossified, hierarchical institution with chronically rubbish IT (and without the funding to upgrade it) and chronically (and understandably) knackered officers?

Cameron and Osborne either (i) knew that starving the police of resources would result in poorer services and no accompanying productivity improvements, or (ii) genuinely believed that the police would simply become more productive with fewer resources.

If the former is true, then that shows us the ideological depth of austerity; they were willing to bolt a Tory sacred cow in the name of deficit reduction. If the latter is true, it’s example no. 2321 of why we should beware those Oxbridge spads who dress up as serious economists who understand business.

Here is a quick list of ideas re. policing. I should point out that this is journalism; I am expounding confidently on something that I know very little about:

  • Give officers more autonomy and ditch the target culture. My quick research on the /r/policeuk subreddit suggests that this might have already happened.
  • Stop the culture among senior management of papering over the cracks. If there’s not enough resource to do the job properly, tell the public.
  • Stop single-crewing.
  • More money, more officers.
  • More efficient paperwork systems. Surely, some uber-rich US police force will have an IT system that just works. Buy it. It should be fine so long as you ignore absolutely all other policing advice that they try and give you.
  • Make officer health a priority: gyms in stations, exercise classes, ban the ritual of bringing cakes in when you mess up, reduce the amount of drinking and increase the amount of sleeping.
  • Let police officers strike. Force the public to confront the consequences of underfunding.

Bonus round: some more informal economy vocab

Sociolismo (Cuba): "buddyism": using your network to pull strings (e.g., acquiring black market goods) and a ripping good pun on “socialismo”.

só para inglês ver: (Brazil and Lusophone Africa): “Just for the English to see”. Used to describe Potemkin laws / institutions. The phrase comes from the 19th century introduction of hollow anti-slavery laws in these parts of the world to appease the English in their anti-slavery efforts.

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  1. There’s a useful categorisation of the different types of pripiski here ↩︎