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.

Mid-Suffolk PCC Public Meeting, 13th May 2015

Despite my interest in policing I've never been to a public meeting with the police before, at least not as a member of the public.  Perhaps I was just too scarred by the experience of being savaged in Islington in the 80s or frustrated in Bradford in the 90s while sitting on the other side of the table, but more that I didn't think I would want to put myself in a position which would probably just result in my sympathising with the speakers rather than the audience.

However, a less-than-satisfactory telephone encounter with Suffolk Constabulary earlier this week caused me to be looking at their website, and I saw that there was a meeting last night in Eye, the large village/small town just 3 miles away. Speaking were the Police & Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore, the Temporary Chief Constable Gareth Wilson and my local Inspector, Tristran Pepper.  So it was I arrived, early as usual, in the Community Centre car park waiting to play my part in feeding back community views on policing.

As is often the case, I found some humour in the situation straight away.  Four youths were, as I arrived, sitting on the playground equipment smoking.  Now it might have been that they could only afford the one cigarette and that was why they were passing round between them, but I suspect there may have been a less legal reason for it.  And while they certainly looked up (and stopped sharing) while first the Chief and then the Inspector walked into the building in uniform it didn't actually put an end to their fun.  How ironic, I thought, if someone were to mention youths taking drugs in public areas in the meeting about to begin.  I wasn't disappointed.

As the meeting began I looked around at my fellow participants.  Around 20 members of the community and a handful of staff from the PCC's office I guess.  A man videoing the meeting for later upload to the website and a lady serving the free teas and coffees. With biscuits. Our part of Suffolk is very rural and eyeing the public attendees I realised that all were 10 years or so older than me with the exception of a 40-something man in a tie sitting behind me who seemed quite organised, being in possession of some sort of PCC publicity material upon which he had made copious "black spider" notes.  I tried, mentally, to predict the issues to be raised.  Cynics in the Met always say that, whatever the crime situation, the public always complain about dog mess on the pavement.  I discounted this, if for no other reason than that the area actually has very few pavements, and put my imaginary bets instead on speeding, drugs use and visibility of police.

The meeting began pretty much on time and for once the audio and visual equipment worked flawlessly, at least after the PCC had found the button on his radio mic.  He started, inevitably running through the financial challenges facing the Constabulary, the changing demands it faced and reassuring us that he would not be "chucking other people's money at it".  Of course, not Mr. Passmore - you are a Conservative - we all know that is Labour's method.  There was a quick reinforcement of his view that he was right to refuse to amalgamate the Constabulary's Control Room with our neighbours in Norfolk - the one most contentious decision of his reign to date - although without offering any reason for his conviction.  Perhaps it has been all been done before; certainly nobody seemed to want him to expand. He ended by explaining that much research had been conducted on domestic violence and acknowledged that "the system does need improvement" and then touched on innovation, referring to an initiative titled "Evidence-based policing".  Which, I thought, didn't sound all that innovative - surely policing had been based on evidence for a very long time.  Or at least ought to have been?

The Chief was next. He has a pleasant and relaxed style which I warmed to.  He stressed the changing nature of demands, that "cyber-crime" and other new problems had largely filled the gaps in demand created by the fall in more traditional crime, hence the overall demand levels had changed, he said, very little.  He accepted that staffing levels would continue to fall and suggested that this could only be met by reducing calls for service, which would enable him to do a better job but with fewer resources.  He was keen to talk about serious and organised crime, the Eastern Area Specialist Operations Unit, Counter Terrorism unit, the ATHENA regional intelligence project, mobile working and body cameras.  I couldn't help but think that, as interesting and exciting as all that might be it was possibly a little beyond the issues that this audience was keen to explore.  The course of the discussion later confirmed this to me.  Lastly, and what was much more relevant was his desire to "understand the demand on the public sector in the county" - with a view to reducing demand by identifying duplication and overlap.  

The final presentation was Insp. Pepper, who ran us through the (improving) figures for victim satisfaction and reductions in anti-social behaviour and domestic burglary in the area. He was entirely reassuring and gave the clear impression that he was a man who cared about his role and succeeding in it.

So, on to questions from the floor.  First up a well-spoken man in the 'pole-position' seat, by the aisle in the front row.  He advanced his view that drugs were the root cause of all crime, and expressed his horror that he had recently heard there was heroin in the area.  The PCC sympathised, said that he personally loathed drugs and that it was the top priority of the policing plans, adding somewhat curiously that we should "rest assured that everything is being done that can be done, but we can always do more I suppose".  Eh?  A few more comments from the floor drew the expected and ironic reference to drug-taking in public areas and then the microphone was passed to the man behind me with the notes.  Who started eloquently but suddenly and without warning flew into a 'hang em and flog em' rant as to how all drug users were criminals and had to be treated as such, arrest them and prosecute them and it is problem solved. He used the phrase 'nail them' a number of times; I don't think he was actually advocating crucifixion but to be honest I don't think any of us was absolutely certain.  It was a very interesting point in proceedings for me - how would this largely senior, probably pretty conservative audience react?  I was a little surprised and quietly relieved that he received absolutely no support.  

A few references to policing hunts followed, from which I learned only that it is a subject which polarises opinion - as if we didn't know that.  And then on to speeding.  The Chief was, as throughout, calm and measured in his responses, explaining that the mobile speed cameras were not a cash cow, were sited so as to have the maximum impact and that Community Speed Watch schemes were expanding and successful.  A few eyebrows were raised when he said that on some rural roads it was difficult to enforce speed limits because it was dangerous to put officers there - due to the speed of passing traffic.........  He quickly qualified this by saying that of course it could be done but that the officers' safety had to be paramount.  We knew what he meant but it was just a slightly clumsy way of expressing it I suppose.

We went on with a discussion about 'eyes and ears' which enabled me to make my point about the difficulty of getting deployment decisions right; I was entirely happy that my feedback was well-received and will be taken into account. Those on the platform appeared to accept that new methods and processes were unlikely to be right first go and that adjustment would made where it was needed.  

The last point was made again by the man with the notes.  He started by apologising for his earlier rant, and in complaining about the lack of police visibility in the town of Stowmarket even made passing reference to Roy Jenkins and the Unit Beat scheme of the 1960s, before spoiling his apparently comprehensive knowledge and research by getting the year of the Brixton riots wrong and repeating an urban myth about the role played by local officers in it. Which upset me a little, but not as much as it did the pole-position drugs man, who stood up, turned round and forcefully accused notes man of monopolising the meeting and ruining it for everyone else,  High drama.

Except it wasn't quite the end, as the microphone then got passed to an elderly man who had so far remained silent, and who proceeded to ask the PCC a question about youth engagement.  Which was a little odd in that there had been scarcely a mention of this throughout the rest of the meeting.  The PCC though clearly relished the question and gave us a 5 minute run-through of the 3 initiatives he was working on in this area.  It was certainly a friendly question to ask him and actually made me wonder if it wouldn't have been better for the answer to have been delivered as a statement in the PCC's opening remarks.

That, then, is my factual report of the meeting.  In my next blog I will try to unpick a few of the issues it highlighted to me.