Thursday, 14 May 2015

Thoughts on the PCC's meeting

I feel enlightened.  I am not sure that is the aim of the Suffolk PCC's series of public meetings, but that was the effect.  Having been forced by my last 9 years of police service and the subsequent 4 years of media work into the very interesting, often exciting but ultimately rather narrow bubble of murder and major crime, my thinking needed a jolt back into more general topics.  And the meeting last night has provided it.

So much has passed through my head since I left the community centre last night, much of it with me standing in a new position - that of a resident, a citizen, a person looking at the police and policing from the outside.  It has taken a while, but I am there.

Which meant that, as the Chief Constable talked about serious and organised crime, the need for a Cybercrime unit, tapping in to regional resources I was thinking "Fine, but this is about the people who live in Mid-Suffolk."  How much of that actually touches them, has a malign effect on their everyday life?  Sure, many of us have had our cards skimmed, but the banks, willing to accept the risk rather than implement cumbersome and expensive security procedures, pay us back.  We don't actually lose out.  Yes it irritates that crooks are making money from it, but is it a priority for us?  Is it what we really want our scarce police resources being targetted on?  Investment fraud practised on the elderly by cold-callers.  Now there is a real issue that actually causes losses, but try to get the police involved in that.  Good luck, I have - from the advantageous position of working as a consultant inside two different Trading Standards Units. It was a nearly impossible task, even though the losses were measured in millions.

The businessmen in the audience were nodded to, "You know what happens when your supply lines get disrupted".  To which one reasonable answer would have been, "Yes, we have to find another supplier and the price goes up". That is, I think, just the economics of the market and applies just as much to drug supply as it does widgets and thingmybobs. Of course the drugs problem as perceived in communities cannot be addressed by mass arrests and prosecutions of users, as one man suggested.  The police, CPS, courts and prisons would be swamped, they just couldn't cope with the numbers.  But it fails at the first hurdle in any case - as soon as officers make an arrest the tedious custody, processing and administrative tasks take them out of the game for hours.

Of course investigation and prosecution of dealers up the chain has to go on, often by specialist units and regional or national agencies.  But let us not pretend that it has any measurable effect on the ills experienced by communities due to drug use.  So let us rely upon it neither to do so, nor to justify taking resources away from local policing.  Indeed, the only drugs operations I have been involved in which made a real difference in quality of life for communities were those aimed at disrupting overt sales and use on the streets - Operation Welwyn in King's Cross where I was the Detective Inspector, and its child Operation Rockwood which I ran as Head of Intelligence in West Yorkshire some years later. Street undercover operations in order to disrupt supply and take it away from ordinary people to make their streets safer.  But I would never pretend it was anything approaching a complete solution to the drugs problem, just a way of making life more pleasant.  And while it would have relevance in a few areas of a handful of Suffolk towns it has little I think to offer the rural rump of the county.

Speeding.  The bane of rural life some would say, and despite my credentials as a fully-fledged petrol-head, motorsport competitor I would agree.  Perhaps because, in small part, of that.  But as the Chief said, it isn't just exceeding the limit which causes danger.  Many of our roads have 60mph limits yet 45 can be dangerous given their nature and the type of traffic using them.  I am surprised that much more use is not made of s.59 notices - the power under the Police Reform Act 2002 to warn drivers using vehicles in an anti-social way.  First notice is a warning, the second in 12 months means the vehicle can be confiscated. Perfect to deal with drivers who are inconsiderate, careless or driving on footpaths or bridleways.  No equipment needed, just an officer with a pen and paper, minimal bureaucracy.  Assuming of course there is an officer available.

Which leads neatly on to numbers, resources, funding.  It is not going to be easy, we accept that.  Whatever your view on cuts, they are here for the immediate future.  We either shrug our shoulders and accept a worse service or get clever, get smart and get innovative.  Can a better service be achieved with less?  I think so, as does this former UK officer now working in Canada:

The key to that seems to be the reduction in bureaucracy and time taken for officers to deal with the administrative tasks which now beset everything they do.  Which is a problem for us, in that much of it is imposed at a national level, by Parliament or the Courts.  But a good and achievable start would be to restore the authority to charge for all but the most serious of offences to police, obviating to need for ponderous file preparation and liaison with the CPS before charges are laid.  Watch some of the TV films showing procedures in custody offices now, and see if you think to precautions taken, the questions asked of prisoners, the things done to accommodate them are sensible or unwieldy.  I wonder sometimes if the Custody Officer's badge ought to say "Police"; "Holiday Inn Express" might be more accurate.

I am sure the public desire is for police to enforce.  Not to advise, not to mediate and certainly not to ignore.  Yes, the process and our convoluted, cumbersome, over-sophisticated criminal justice system does not lend itself to a presumption of arrest and prosecution in every case but, to coin a phrase, other enforcement methods are available.  I have referred to the s.59 enforcement notice for vehicles already, similar provisions are in place for anti-social behaviour in terms of fixed-penalty notices and ultimately ASBOs.  Confiscations of uninsured vehicles, prohibition notices that sort of thing.  Indeed, just turning up and showing that the police care - that the community cares - with a firm word will have an effect.  Zero Tolerance doesn't have to mean arrest, it ought to mean that we don't ignore things.

The two pillars of local policing for local people are community and response. Yes it is reassuring to see patrolling officers (despite all research pointing to their having virtually no impact on crime levels) and the link they provide - eyes and ears - is too useful and integral to policing to be lost. Yet there is also, isn't there, a great reassurance in safely knowing that, when the chips are down, when something is happening and you really need police help, quickly, one phone call will deliver two professional, trained and competent officers at your door within minutes.  Personally I think this is the most important reassurance, others disagree.  Whichever way you think, can we agree that they are both desirable?  A feature of the tale from Canada in the link above is the high proportion of the workforce which is available for street duties.  I have no idea what the similar proportions are in Suffolk, but I am certain it will be nowhere near.  Despite the massive civilianisation programme the British police underwent since 1997 there are still too many officers in all forces in non-patrol roles.   The key to this is a multi-functional workforce with a default position of patrol, in community or response roles.  Where other demands arise they can be switched to a different role while the need persists, but we cannot afford a standing army of backroom staff at the expense of more visible policing.

Which also means that police must restrict themselves to policing.  I was interested in the Chief Constable's remarks about looking at the whole public service demand.  Yes there is overlap, with Social Services and Children's Services in particular but also with health and housing. But there must be a clear understanding of who does what and despite all these professions being staffed as they are by those who care, the temptation formally to fill the gaps caused by the shortcomings of other agencies is to be avoided.  We have already, in most places, washed our hands of lost property and a few other things the police have always done because there was nobody else.  Nothing should be ruled in or out other than patrol and response; some traditional functions will and ought to be examined carefully to see if their contribution to what the community wants from its police justifies their existence.  It is all scary and yet refreshing in equal measure.

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