Re-imagining Police Custody

26 08 2015

A Home Office commissioned report has today said that about a quarter of a million vulnerable people are not receiving the support of an “appropriate adult” while in police custody.

A few months ago, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published their report on “The Welfare Of Vulnerable People In Custody” which made clear the distance still to travel in terms of how police manage the vulnerable in their care. 

I blogged about this at the time in a missive called One Size Fits All. The point of the title was to draw attention to the fact that custody suites are designed to be generic buildings with little to no provision for anyone with any form of vulnerability. A cell is a cell is a cell. 

I happened to catch the last twenty minutes of 24 Hours In Police Custody this week. As a general rule I don’t watch police based programmes, fact or fiction, for the simple reason that they make me angry. I get annoyed at procedural errors and the editing and portrayal of police activity is often skewed towards the “watchable and exciting.” This often presents a misleading image of what policing is. 

This episode was no exception and has reenforced my commitment to not watching police based TV. 

It showed several people who appeared to have some form of mental illness. The first was a man who became increasingly agitated the longer he was in custody. Now, from where I was watching it was hard to determine whether some of this wasn’t an act. I say this because almost immediately upon his release the symptoms disappeared. Now this could simply be because he had been released and it therefore relieved his anxiety – I am no expert. However, the only option available to the custody team was to allow him into the exercise yard, on constant supervision with an officer, in the hope that it would calm him down. It didn’t. 

The second male was a giant of a man who was acting very strangely. He had been seen by the Force Medical Examiner (FME) who had determined him fit to interview. By the time he was asked to accompany officers to the interview room it was clear that he was anything but fit to interview. Yet the officers said they were reluctant to undermine the FME and seek a second opinion. At one point he was taken to see the duty solicitor and within minutes he simply walked out of the room. The solicitor came to the custody desk and said he was unable to get instructions from him. 

I have to be mindful of what might have been edited out here but the solicitor appeared to make no representations that the male might not be fit and might, at the very least, require an appropriate adult. 

The programme went on to show him being interviewed, without either legal representation or appropriate adult. During the interview he stood up in the most intimidating way and this forced the two officers to back out of the room and press the panic alarm to summon assistance.

It was a credit to the officers who came to assist that the situation was resolved peaceably and without recourse to any use of force at all. It had the potential to become a very difficult and violent incident. 

The programme went on to say that the male was seen again and sectioned. It also said that he was charged with the offences for which he was arrested. This shows that it is possible for someone to be mentally ill and still be capable of committing crime.

Overall, I was very concerned about the lack of appropriate adults in both of those instances. I was concerned by the fact that the officers didn’t seek a second opinion earlier in the latter case and confused as to why the legal representative didn’t say something. 

It is therefore of interest that today’s report from the Home Office shows that many people are not getting access to appropriate adults. There are a number of factors to blame. One appears to be lack of awareness amongst police officers of when one might be required but another is the simple fact that there are not enough of them. 

This has been the case for my entire service. It is notoriously difficult to get access to appropriate adults. There does not seem to be a centrally managed call out list of trained and suitable people. 

It is even hard to get appropriate adults for children in care. Many, many times I have known social services or even the care home from which the child has come simply refuse to come out and act on their behalf. 

This is something which needs to change. There are no shortages of volunteers to become Independent Custody Visitors so surely it cannot be impossible to run a campaign to increase the number of appropriate adults who could be called upon. 

Appropriate adults are in constant demand. It almost makes sense to have them on the police payroll and available 24/7 but they have to be independent of the police. 

Of as much concern is the fact that police officers seem to be unaware of when an appropriate adult is required. This was summed up beautifully in 24 Hours In Police Custody when an officer was asked what training she had in mental health. After a short pause she diplomatically replied “We get online training.”

It simply isn’t good enough. 

Admittedly there are a lot of current demands for police to receive better training in many things. You run the danger of having officers spending all their time training but the answer is not and cannot be a click and point computer programme of compulsory input.

This is “tick box” training where an organisation can make it mandatory and then claim that the staff have “received training.” Whilst there is a responsibility for the user to undertake it and learn, the inputs are often very poor and there is no substitute for classroom based, interactive sessions. It’s no good the police delivering this either – there needs to be input from subject matter experts who can be questioned and challenged whilst sharing their expertise. 

But returning to custody itself, it is increasingly clear that one size does not fit all. Police custody units are designed to flow at their best when the detainee is fit, healthy, sober, compliant, English-speaking and understands what is going on. I cannot think of the last time I met a detainee where at least one of those things on the list wasn’t present.

Custody units are hard environments with hard walls and doors. Previously, I have heard government ministers talk about how custody units should be “for criminals” and not for the vulnerable. This rather over simplifies the problem. Look back at the man in 24 Hours In Police Custody. Clearly he had some very big mental health issues and presented an enormous risk in terms of potential violence. Yet – he was suspected of, and later charged with, the offence of robbery.

Whilst it would be ideal never to have anyone in police custody who is solely there because of a mental health disturbance (as in – Section 136 of the Mental Health Act) we cannot avoid the fact that people with mental health disturbances will end up in custody because they are suspected of committing a criminal offence. This applies equally to the elderly, children and people with any number of possible health issues or vulnerabilities. 

I have previously suggested that custody units might benefit from a “soft room” where a violent person might be taken instead of relying on physical restraint on a concrete floor. I am always met with cries of “ah, but that means other agencies will rely on the police too much and not take responsibility themselves.”

I don’t agree with that logic. Whether police like it or not they will always have to deal with violent people and they will still have to accept mentally ill people who “cannot be managed” elsewhere. It is the express will of government – we need to be ready for it.

One has to ask whether police custody actually needs to become far more tailored and adaptable.

Ultimately, its primary purpose is to hold people safely so that an investigation can take place. That should never be forgotten and the premises need to serve that purpose and be capable of securing some very dangerous people at times. 

The staff in custody units are always busy and under pressure. It can be a very highly charged (no pun intended) atmosphere and is a very intense place to work. Detainees can be very demanding and often these demands aren’t real. Some detainees really do play up spectacularly and deliberately try to make life as difficult as possible for the officers and staff. 

And yet there are many people held in police custody who have genuine needs. Many have addictions, many have mental health issues diagnosed or undiagnosed. Many have no-one who can act on their behalf and no support network of their own. Many have health issues brought on by poor life choices. Many don’t speak English as a first language. 

Custody seems to be an ideal place to intervene here. There are many forces who have alcohol and drug advisors who will speak to detainees and try to offer them help. 

It is no lie to say that you see the same people coming in and out of custody all the time (and I am not talking about the staff.) the vast majority of detainees will have been through the process before and in many cases many times. 

They are dealt with for whatever offence they are suspected of and then released or sent before a court and it won’t be long before they are seen again. Sometimes even the same day. 

This isn’t a criticism of sentencing or rehabilitation – it’s an observation that nothing seems to be done to stop the cycle. 

Perhaps there is a better way. Perhaps custody provides the ideal opportunity – with a captive audience (pun intended) – to look at health, referrals and support for detainees. Not only as a means to help them but as a means to prevent them coming back and ultimately reduce demand.

When police see a victim of domestic abuse they will complete a risk assessment which is then further assessed and could lead to any number of agencies discussing the situation and getting involved. 

We now see the rise of victim care programmes where huge effort is placed in contacting victims and supporting them after the event. 

Both of these are absolutely valid and worthwhile but are we doing the same for suspects – especially vulnerable ones?

A modern custody unit, if you take all the various reports together, needs to be a hybrid detention centre, hospital, mental health suite and social care office with different facilities for children and the elderly. Such a place does not exist. 

There are so many obstacles in the way which make assisting the vulnerable far more difficult. Most of the things needed are not immediately or readily available. It takes hours, sometimes days, to get access to medical, mental health, appropriate adult even linguistic support. 

Despite the talk about police custody being a place for criminals, it isn’t. It is mostly a place for suspects and they are very different things. 

Police custody is a pretty cold and harsh environment. It doesn’t need to be brightly painted with scatter cushions but the more I think about it the more of a revolving door I see. The more I see that custody could provide a far better opportunity to intercept and redirect someone towards help and support which may reduce crime and demand. 

The more I think about it – the more I realise that custody units and the facilities in them and the ease with which staff can obtain the support they so frequently need to help the vulnerable simply isn’t there. 

This is again, bigger than the police alone. It is something that Police and Crime Commissioners need to view with the same importance as supporting victims. 

It relies on others stepping up to the plate as much as the police getting their own house in order. 

A while back I proposed multi-agency hubs in control rooms in a blog called One Door

The need for professionals from a range of disciplines to work together within the policing and criminal justice world is becoming increasingly evident. It should have been this way since 1998 but as budgets shrink it is becoming more and more obvious that a symbiotic relationship is mutually beneficial in terms of identifying and resolving issues and reducing demand for everyone. More importantly it helps the people themselves – directly and in a far more systemic way. 

Custody is, perhaps, another ideal environment where this approach could be transformational, save lives and reduce crime and demand.

The Red Button Project is intended to allow front line practitioners, the public and people who work alongside the police to contribute ideas and thoughts on what a police service would look like if you had to design one from scratch. 

Previous blogs can be viewed on our blog site

You can follow us on Twitter @OldBillRebuilt and the hashtag #OldBillRebuilt. If you would like to contribute ideas, blogs or suggestions then please use the comments section below or contact @NathanConstable, @DedicatedPeeler or @EmWilliamsCCCU

At All Costs 

31 07 2015

Over the last few days the issue of what cuts to police budgets might mean has finally gained some traction in the media. 

First we had Merseyside CC Sir Jon Murphy speaking plainly and honestly about what the re-structure of the force would look like:

“We will not deliver as good as service as we have done before. In some instances it will take us longer to get there. In some cases we won’t turn up. That’s an inevitable consequence of having less people to do more work.”

Meanwhile, in the West Midlands, 2500 staff face the daunting prospect of redundancy as they try to make the savings required of them in the Spending Review. CC Chris Sims said “This is certainly not what I would have wanted but we have already had to make £126m worth of cuts and face the prospect of saving a further £120m over the next five years”

CC Sara Thornton, president of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, speaking on the BBC, said that it “could be” that an officer might not attend to investigate a burglary. She said that crime is changing and the police needed to reform radically in order to survive the budget cuts.

In all of these three cases the Chief Constables have talked about how shrinking finances will force the police to concentrate on the areas where there is the highest risk of harm. All have said that with reduced numbers they will not be able to do everything they did before and that difficult choices would need to be made. All have talked about there needing to be new ways of approaching policing and all have talked of the need for other agencies to do more of the things they probably should have been doing in the first place.

This is a marked change of narrative from the Chiefs. Gone is what I termed the “relentless optimism” of what were previously badged as “new and exciting opportunities” presented by financial cuts. This, though late, is a welcome and far more realistic view of the future.

The Federation have been trying for a couple of years to promote the cuts have consequences message and now that members of the NPCC have started to echo that (but with a slightly different message) it seems to have gained some traction in the media.

The media response has been interesting. When the Fed tried this tack they were accused of crying wolf. The Home Secretary herself used the term and with great confidence challenged the Fed at conference to demonstrate where these consequences were – because no one was seeing them.

The response from the media now the Chiefs are speaking out is to accuse them of abandoning the public and putting their officers first. Sara Thornton’s comments about burglary attendance in particular have been seized upon and twisted. She didn’t say that police wouldn’t investigate burglary – she said that it might be investigated in a different way. For example – the person who is most likely to gain evidence at a burglary scene is a Crime Scene Examiner. At the moment a police officer is sent who will generally look at the scene and not touch anything. They might take a short statement of loss from the victim and offer what reassurance and advice they can, conduct some house to house enquiries and then await CSI. Why not just send CSI? Surely they could do the same as well as conducting a forensic examination of the scene? One person sent instead of two? Just a thought.

The main problem with the response from the media and the politicians is that it is clear that they still have absolutely no idea what the police actually do. In their mind it would seem that there are more than enough officers to deal with things and that we should be able to deal with everything that is asked of us.

What has really irked me this week, however, is the accusation that the police are lazy and inept. CC Thornton has made the point twice in a week, once in her speech and once on television, that unless the police reform to cope with demand then it will break the staff. There is simply too much work to do for those who will be left behind after the job losses.

The Daily Telegraph responded to this with an editorial which almost caused me to gnaw through the knuckle of my right index finger. I was incensed when I read it.

The editorial started by saying that “Chief Constables must remember their duty to reassure victims of crime.” The heading was “police must not ignore burglary victims.”

The paragraph which really got me was this one

“Another of her comments is also highly revealing: “I don’t think it’s possible to carry on doing what we’ve always done, as we will just fail the public but also cause unacceptable stress among our officers and staff.” For while the comfort and happiness of police officers is important, it is not the reason that police forces exist. That reason is to uphold the law and protect the populace, both from crime and the fears, anxiety and distress that crime causes.”

I think we all know the reason why the police exist the point being made is that it is going to be impossible to do that if you push the staff you have to breaking point. 

Much is said across the various Twitter feeds of local Police Federation about how close to the edge the staff are. How overworked and overloaded they are. How tired and exhausted they have become.

Another news article this week outlined the fact that since the cuts started the police overtime budget has gone through the roof. This was an utterly foreseeable consequence. The work still needs to be done and if there aren’t enough people to do it then you have to pay those who are left to work longer to complete it.

What the article didn’t say is that, actually, it is getting harder and harder to find people who WANT to do the overtime any more. Everyone is so tired that they just aren’t interested.

The cynical and most likely response to this problem is to change the pay conditions, buy out overtime so it isn’t paid any more and then order people to stay on. Change rest days at the drop of a hat, cancel leave and alter working hours at short notice. What other organisation would tolerate that?

The problem is that the press particularly seem to see the police as a special case. An occupation where, once you have joined, you are effectively public property and anything and everything you do is to be scrutinised.

This is actually true – police are, after all, crown servants who are paid for from the public purse. But there is a difference between legitimate scrutiny and expecting someone to work until they drop just because their salary comes from the precept.

I saw a tweet this week which really summed this up. I can’t remember who sent it but it was another one of those “is this a good use of police time?” jibes and it showed three uniformed officers (at least one was a PCSO) walking out of a Nando’s restaurant carrying food.

The author of the tweet has simply jumped to the conclusion that this is an unacceptable situation and how dare three officers get something to eat, in public, at the same time.

It’s funny how no-one asks that of any other occupation in the world.

Walk around any town or city in the UK at lunchtime and you will see small groups of co-workers wandering in and out of cafés or food outlets without a care in the world. If they are lucky they might be able to stroll out to a park and take in some sunshine whilst they eat together. All very civilised.

Apparently, for police, this is different.

Let me tell you about my lunch break. I don’t get one. Not very often anyway. Yes, I am paid for the full total of hours I am on duty but within that time should be 45 minutes of uninterrupted rest so that I can get something to eat and take a break.

Where I work I am the only person in the room, in fact the only person in the force, who is allocated to perform the job I do. I have no deputy and there is no back up. If someone has to make a decision on an initial firearms response that is my job and my job alone. I have many other responsibilities which are unique and constant so my lunch break – if I get one – is likely to be five minutes away from my screens to bolt something down my neck before returning. Often I eat at my desk. Often I don’t eat at all.

Police refreshment breaks are allowed subject to the exigencies of duty. They are not a right as they might be for anyone else in the world of work.

Don’t get me wrong – it has been like this for ever and it doesn’t actually bother me. What bothers me is the constant criticism which is thrown at police officers who dare to be seen eating or buying food in public.

You may or may not be aware of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. 

At the bottom of the illustration are those things which are necessary for a human being to function. At the top are the things we aspire to achieve. If you don’t have things at the bottom – you can’t move up the triangle.
Unsurprisingly – food and water are on the bottom. Two essential requirements to sustain human life.

What authors of tweets such as the one above are saying is that it actually matters where a police officer buys their lunch and that it actually matters how many of them do it at the same time. 

I could get sanctimonious and offer defences such as “they could have spent the last 6 hours at a crime scene guard” or “perhaps they have just been to a harrowing incident” but what is the point. It is overly defensive and the fact is that the author has jumped to the conclusion that three officers buying something to eat is a frivolous use of tax payers money.

I am lucky to sit in a position at work where I can “see” the whole force. I can see the whole board. Let me assure you that everyone is working flat out.

From the people who don’t stop taking calls from the moment they sit down to the moment they leave (remember I talked about the three staff who took over 700 calls in 8 hours a few weeks back), to the colleagues who spend all day dispatching officers and dealing with radio traffic. To the officers who go from job to job to job without break for their entire tour of duty. To the staff who deal with the administrative side of what these jobs create – the crime reports, the allocation, the filing.

To the team’s working in CID who are now coping with more work than I think has ever been the case previously. To the CSI’s who attend the crime scenes and gather evidence. To the slimmed down traffic departments who now cover vast areas in smaller numbers. To all those people who work across the organisation keeping the wheels on.

Everyone is busy – everyone is flat out.

You can only improve the performance of any organisation in one of two ways.

You either increase capacity or you reduce demand.

Are the police getting more resources and thereby increasing capacity? No.

Is demand reducing? No.

The next round of cuts will actually DECREASE capacity further and so, if the police are to stand any chance at all they need to reduce demand. This is why reform is necessary.

But where Sara Thornton is right and the Telegraph is wrong is that officer and staff welfare is not a choice. It is not a choice between keeping the staff safe and healthy and answering the demand of the public – the two things are symbiotic.

If your staff are broken because they have been hammered beyond capacity by the workload then they cannot offer any kind of public service. They will become ill and go sick and capacity will reduce further. This will increase the demand on those left behind and so this will continue until they break as well.

Police officers are tough people but they are not machines.

The demand from the public cannot be met at all costs to the welfare of the staff no matter how much the tax payers pay. It is false economy.

We’ve heard a lot of this adage lately – we’ve also considered whether actually it isn’t a one way street at the moment. But, with apologies to Sir Robert Peel, I think it needs something adding to it at the moment:

The police are the public and the public are the police.

The public are human and the police are human too. 

The Burning Platforms

21 07 2015

Things were different when I joined. Well, they were. This was back in 1994, I was a boy. I didn’t have the first damn clue what I was letting myself in for. I had wanted to be a policeman since I sat staring in awe at the copper stood in full Number 1 uniform lining the route of the Queen’s Jubilee tour in 1977. I was 3. 

“What’s that medal for?” asked my father pointing at the Long Service and Good Conduct medal proudly displayed on his chest.

“Not getting found out.” he replied with a wink.

When I think about it – to have been wearing that in 1977 he must have joined at least 22 years previously. He would have been policing since at least 1955. Sat next to him, in a pushchair, sat a little boy who would be doing the same job 60 years after he first started.

In those 60 years things have moved on. He would have joined only 10 years after the end of the Second World War. A war he must have lived through as a boy or young man himself. During my lifetime all the wars we have been involved in have been fought far away. We would both have seen issues arising from The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I grew up in South Wales, watching the pits that surrounded my grandmother’s home town close down and vanish – watching the convoys of lorries carrying coal and the pictures of striking miners clashing with police.

I am the fifth generation of police officer in my family tree. My great uncle was a traffic sergeant in South Wales police. My great great grandfather was a Chief Inspector in Manchester police. His son followed him into the same force. On my mother’s side another great great held the rank of sergeant and the keys to the old gaol. Although it skipped a generation or two along the way – policing is, as they say, in my blood. You may even say that with so much family history invested in the past and present of policing, I have every right to want the best for the future.

With the exception of short periods involved in some more strategic level work my entire service has been as a uniformed front line officer, across three ranks, 24/7 response, neighbourhood and now as a Tactical Firearms Commander. I’ve been “hands on” for two decades.

In all those years policing has changed immensely. The uniform, the equipment, the training, the types of things the police do. Evolving constantly as society has changed but always sticking to the original Peelian principles upon which the service was founded.

In the 21 years since I first joined I have witnessed incredible changes. Back then we still wore tunics. We still had wooden truncheons which lived in special pockets down the seam of your trouser leg. Patrol cars were already established by the time I started but I remember it being akin to the end of the world when a senior officer decided we didn’t need to wear flat caps when we were sat in cars anymore.

Back then it wasn’t compulsory to record everything you went to. A “no complaint” job never saw pen touching paper. These were the days, sadly, when we would still turn up at jobs and say “it was only a domestic” and walk away as though it was perfectly acceptable. In those days a husband could still rape his wife and it wasn’t considered an offence.

Not everything that took place back then was right. Or better.

Things really started to change when the New Labour government took charge. The police suddenly found themselves having to justify their existence and their spending. Gone were the days of crimes being recorded on paper (which could easily get lost) and in came new and more thorough ways of recording, retaining and auditing.

Targets became fashionable. They moved beyond fashionable and became essential. They then became more important than the job itself. What got measured got done and this led to the now, well-documented, gaming and smoke and mirrors where things were prioritised by crime type. The consequences of this are only now beginning to be exposed where we are now learning about decades worth of victims being largely ignored because the crimes they had been subjected to weren’t one of the four which kept Chief Constables as Chief Constables.

Not everything that took place back then was right. Or better.

The one thing that was consistent was that the budgets kept going up. With that the number of officers went up. With that the number of support staff went up. Salaries kept going up. These were halcyon days where, looking back on it now, you wonder what the hell it was all spent on.

The answer to that is two-fold. Technology (much of it wasted and now redundant) and the Crime Fighting Fund.

This wonderful fund was government money that could only be spent on police officers. Even then, Chiefs were turning around and saying “But we don’t want to spend it on police officers. We could put it to far better use on equipment or technology and we could modernise. Hell, we could even bring in experts from outside who aren’t police officers to help us deal with certain things.

“No” said Whitehall. That money was ONLY to be spent on police officers and this was done so it could legitimately be claimed that there had never been so many police officers on the streets of the UK as there were then.

This was a massive bear trap. It meant forces ended up paying for police officers they didn’t need and with that came the associated salary and pension bill which came with it. This was all fine whilst the money kept rolling in but it was setting up a huge debt for the future.

Along with this came endless time and motion studies. Whole new layers of bureaucracy and recording systems which would allow the government of the day to make all kinds of announcements and pronouncements about exactly what the police were doing with every 15 minutes of their day and how much was being spent.

In fact – we spent more time writing things up than it took to actually DO the thing that needed doing.

Not everything that took place back then was better. Or right.

Then the money ran out. Or it was stopped. Whichever way you look at it, the tap was turned off and Chief Constables now found themselves staring into the abyss of massive future salary and pension bills and a budget which was set to shrink by 20%. 

More cuts are coming.

Here lies the first burning platform for reform – finance.

Since 1998, all statutory agencies have been required to work together to reduce crime. Be it health, education, social landlords – all were now legally required to factor crime prevention / reduction into their work and strategic plans. For the first time, multi-agency panels were put on a legal footing and the first Crime and Disorder Partnerships were formed.

This felt like progress. This meant that, legally, the police weren’t now solely responsible for dealing with what had traditionally been “police work.” In many ways it was an extension of the Peelian Principle that the public were the police and the police were the public. Now the public agencies were the police and vice versa.

Oddly enough, there was no legal requirement for the police to consider health or education or social work in their plans so it is all the more ironic that, as time has gone on, the police have found themselves doing more and more of this and less and less “police work.”

To the point where 80% of police demand has nothing to do with crime.

I’m not entirely sure how this has happened – but it has.

In the first two years of my service, for example, I was only ever called upon once to get involved with the forceable sectioning of a mental health sufferer in their own home. The less said about that incident the better but it was dealt with unsympathetically and forcefully and it remains one of the most shameful things I have ever had the misfortune to be present at and involved in.

Fast forward to 2014 and my teams were dealing with numerous mental health sufferers every single day. They were dealing with numerous missing people every single day. They were dealing with countless domestic abuse cases (properly) every single day. Things that 20 years ago we were either rarely called to or simply weren’t dealt with properly.

Back then, we were very rarely called by other agencies. We only ever set foot in hospitals if we or a detainee was hurt or ill. We weren’t getting so many calls full stop and we certainly hadn’t become the default back up contingency for every other service provider in existence.

In the 20 years or so that I have been a serving officer the police family has grown but the demand placed upon it has grown as well. Hugely. Did Sir Robert Peel ever imagine that police officers would one day end up becoming a de facto front line for mental health services in the United Kingdom?

No – he didn’t – otherwise he would have written a principle about it.

The fact is that he didn’t (and there is some doubt as to whether he ever ACTUALLY wrote down the principles which have been attributed to him in exactly the way they are now presented.)

What he did do was create a police force whose measurement of success was supposed to be absence of crime rather than indication of police activity. Where a constable was nothing more than an ordinary member of the public who was paid to spend their working life solely dedicated to performing the crime fighting civic duty expected of ALL citizens.

By all measures you could argue that this has failed.

Crime has gone up and there are many more ways to commit it than there were in 1829 and the public and police have become more separated than ever before with the public playing less and less of a role in civic crime fighting duty than at any time in history.

This is a very negative way of looking at – what to my mind – remain an extremely sound set of principles and values upon which to build a police service. But something hasn’t quite worked out. The police have become, or been allowed to become or have allowed themselves to become the service of first resort in many things which Sir Robert Peel almost certainly could not have imagined or predicted.

The debate has moved on. Where he talked about “crime” we now talk about “threat, risk and harm.” Why? Because over a period of time and after many high profile and uncomfortable inquiries and investigations into how police have dealt with various incidents – there has been much and heavy criticism over not protecting people adequately enough. Not society at large – but individuals. These cases have led to such stinging criticism that the police could and should have reasonably been expected to see the risk – but didn’t – that we have now ended up in a situation where almost no risk is acceptable and something must be done to prevent it.

Gone are the days when police could concentrate on burglary and theft. Unpleasant though they are it is not these types of crime which are likely to lead to death, exploitation of children or serious injury. Crime has become hidden from view to the point where “volume crimes” now mostly take place in private in the form of domestic abuse or online fraud. No highly visible patrolling officer on foot can possibly hope to prevent any of it.

There is still a long way to go before police get this right.

Here lies the second burning platform for reform – victims.

Gone are the days of a benevolent government who believe that the size of the police is, by its own definition, a symbol of the success of the police. And whilst the police budget is cut so is everyone else’s. As their resources contract they are evermore looking at the police to plug the gaps.

Whether we like it or not – whether we accept it or not – this is the future and no amount of shouting about how “more cops will solve the issue” will solve the issue. We had more cops in the 90’s and we didn’t get it right then either.

We aren’t getting more cops. We are getting fewer. That is the harsh reality for probably the next decade or more. The pendulum may well swing back the other way but not for a long time.

Demand is currently outstripping supply and, in my view, it isn’t necessarily because we have too few police officers it is because the police are being expected to do too much. We could have a smaller police service IF some of that demand was routed somewhere else or better shared. 

Police are struggling to deal with what is asked of them.

Here lies the third burning platform for reform – demand.
The president of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Sara Thornton, spoke on Monday about how 70,000 fewer police staff is a “game changer.” She said that the whole system of public service delivery needed to be radically changed and policing needed to be re-imagined in the light of the new financial picture. Just as importantly, she said that if you continue to expect the police to carry on doing what they have been doing, with fewer resources, then the staff themselves will break.

Sickness levels are already rising.

Here lies the fourth burning platform for reform – staff welfare.

Chief Constable Thornton is right. She said herself that she isn’t one to “cry wolf” and isn’t doing so now. For that matter, I don’t believe that the Police Federation Chairman, Steve White is crying wolf but they are saying slightly different things.”

Whereas Steve is saying “don’t cut us anymore because cuts have consequences”, Sara Thornton is saying “the cuts are coming – everyone has to adapt to this – radically – or there will be consequences.”

I have said in previous blogs that the Federation needs to get into a position where it has ideas and influence which rival those (both in terms of quality and impact) as those of the leading think tanks. The Red Button Project was an idea to try and begin the debate. It is not associated with or sponsored by the Federation. Just three like minded people who can see the writing on the wall.

The concept is simple. If you had to design a police force now – from the ground up – with the budget we have – what would it look like? What would it do? What would it NOT do? Who else should be involved? How do we measure the things we do? What does success look like? Who else would be in the room or on patrol with us and why?

Over time we look forward to hearing from as any front line practitioners as possible. Not only from those who do the job, but those who work alongside us to do the job and those who watch us do the job. This is about hearing what those people think will work – across the board from response to investigation. From communications to armed policing. From how we deal with mental health and missing people to how we police protest and disorder. From how we deal to who should deal.

The debate and discussion was opened on this by CC Sara Thornton and the NPCC on Monday. We had no idea that was coming or that her speech would chime so closely with the aims and objectives of this project. It is an ideal time to start it and hopefully be heard.

Policing has changed – it has always been changing and it now needs to change in ways possibly not imagined since the service was created. It needs to change because society has changed; its problems and expectations have changed and the financial landscape has changed. 

But before we charge headlong into reform for reform’s sake some very basic questions need to be asked and fully answered first. 

The most important of these are what are the police for and what should they be doing in 21st century Britain?

Whether we like it or not, policing WILL be changed and as that is the case I want the voice of those involved at the sharp end to be heard as loudly as possible. That is the only reason why this project exists.

You can follow us on Twitter @OldBillRebuilt and the the hashtag #OldBillRebuilt. If you would like to contribute ideas, blogs or suggestions then please use the comments section below or contact myself, @dedicatedpeeler or @EmWilliamsCCCU

Critical Mass

15 07 2015

There are two stories today which suggest that public services are struggling to cope with demand.

The first refers to the “sheer volume” of cases being referred to MARAC meetings. (Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference – these try and get as many organisations together as possible so there is a co-ordinated response to high risk domestic violence cases.)

The second follows the release of a report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and states that there are systemic shortages of beds within mental health services across the country.

But a few days ago, Sir Tom Winsor (Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary) was sat before the Home Affairs Select a Committee saying that most police forces do not understand their demand.

No-one could have escaped the news over the last few months about how the NHS and particularly A&E and ambulance service almost melted down due to the level of demand being placed on them.

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who told me that his small team is currently trying to manage 30 CSE cases with more coming in all the time.

Meanwhile, in Kent, the Chief Constable has recently said that his force is practically overwhelmed by the immigration situation following events in Calais.

Speak to any front line police officer and they will tell you they do not stop going from job to job every shift. Speak to any control room dispatcher and they will tell you about the backlog of calls waiting to be attended. Only last week I spoke on Twitter about how three of my colleagues answered over 700 calls in 8 hours.

Whether you are trying to get an ambulance, seen in A&E, police attendance, your call answered, bed space in a mental health ward, cell space in Kent – the sheer volume of people wanting and needing the same thing is huge.

It is huge and increasing at the same time as budgets for all of these services are smaller and shrinking.

I don’t have the figures or analytical skills to claim that there is correlation let alone proof of causation but from where I am sat – everywhere seems to have got a whole lot busier over the last few years.

The sheer volume of matters for discussion at MARAC meetings appears (according to the article anyway) to suggest that solutions then become tick box and, by the sixteenth case or so, things might be missed. The same could be said of the volume around the reports of missing people which have become enormous.

There are two facts here – demand is rising (across all public sector agencies) and resources are contracting. Not only is demand rising but the expectation on how well this demand is dealt with is increasing. The CSE cases and the MARAC referrals all need to be properly investigated or managed so that we don’t let an individual victim or victims down.

We are all being told to do more with less but it seems to be becoming plainly obvious that demand is beginning to outstrip supply.

Are any of these case loads manageable? Is service provision for this amount of calls (to all services) sustainable? Just because a case is 22 in a list of 23 doesn’t mean it is less high risk – otherwise it wouldn’t be at MARAC in the first place.

How long will it be before a service simply isn’t where it is needed to be due to levels of competing demand?

This increase in demand shows no sign of slowing down. For the police you can add historic demand now being added to the mix as sexual offences from decades ago are being reported in the light of recent media.

This isn’t a bad thing – but someone has to deal with it and it means that there are less people to deal with the here and now.

With more budgets cuts on the way it is going to mean some very radical thinking on how this demand is managed and who manages it. Further radical thinking will be required to determine who responds to it and how it is responded to.

Where is the tipping point?

At what point does demand on public services reach a critical mass where they simply cannot cope with any more?

Not as easy as 1,2,3

10 07 2015

They say that things happen in threes. Perhaps if you break something and then something else breakdown then you will expect the third to arrive very soon. Any good speech writer will tell you to use “threes” for sound bites (“Education. Education. Education.”) Any good photographer will tell you to try and break a landscape picture into thirds. Ready, Steady, Go! Red, Amber, Green. Stop, look, listen – yes, there are many things which come in threes.

There are threes in policing and the two which concern me most in my role are “High, Medium, Low” and “Immediate, Priority, Scheduled”High, medium and low are terms which feature across a range of issues including threat assessments for firearms incidents and risk assessments for missing people and “immediate, priority and scheduled” are the first three levels of assessing how quickly a police response is required to any given incident.There has to be some way of putting things into an order of priority – there is no escaping this otherwise you would never properly examine a situation and determine an appropriate response. Some things are greater than others – some things are more urgent than others and some things are more important than others.

It is absolutely right that things are reviewed, assessed and then a decision made on what needs to be dealt with first or who is at most risk.

I have come to wonder though, if these three categories are a little blunt.

The response grading is, I believe nationally, determined by computer after a call taker has input the answers to a series of questions. If a crime is reported and the offender is still on the scene then the software will usually follow an algorithm which says that this requires an “immediate” response. Yet – not every crime where the offender is still present requires an immediate response. “My 12 year old son has stolen money from me” might be an example of where there has been a crime and the offender is present but does not require an immediate response.

The call taker or dispatcher will usually have the ability to upgrade or downgrade the response to a call manually and override the computer’s decision once more facts are known.

The problem is less with the immediate category as it is with the second category of “priority.” If a call requires an immediate response it is likely to get one – officers will be moved from one place to another if necessary. However, a lot of things make it into the priority category. The kind of calls which make it into this particular basket cover a broad range – burglaries, thefts, missing people, domestic incidents, threats and harassment (NB – any of those can be classified as immediate if the circumstances require it.)

The issue comes if police don’t make it to the call in the time expected for a “priority” call. It has been classified from the outset as requiring a priority response and those circumstances are unlikely to change as time passes. In the meantime – more calls graded as “priority” will be coming in but that doesn’t change or alter the fact that the earlier “priority” calls are still unattended and remain a “priority.

If a call was graded as requiring a “priority” response on day one but is still on a command and control screen 24 hours later it isn’t less of a priority. The circumstances are as they were reported. It just means that other things have been assessed as being more of a priority and are now in the queue as well.

The thing is – that these judgements (which priority is the bigger priority) are made by the dispatchers and they currently only have experience to guide them. To be fair – they are very usually correct judgements but there is no sub-category within the label of “priority”. You can’t downgrade something simply because it happened 24 hours ago and police haven’t arrived yet – the risk (whatever it is) is likely to be the same as it was when it was reported (and in some cases higher because no one has attended to intervene.)It is the same with risk assessments for missing people. Three broad categories of High, Medium and Low. Even within that there is an upper end of High and a lower end of Medium but – in terms of classification it’s all we have and those subtle differences are all covered by a broad brush definition.

In some cases there exists a more sophisticated way of analysing a situation. In cases of “threats to life”, for example, there is a weighted question set and the answers give a score. The higher the score the higher the apparent risk. This can greatly aid the decisions around how great a risk exists and how quickly it must be dealt with. This can also help determine the level of resources allocated to dealing with it.

My point is this – if everything is graded as a priority then nothing is a priority. My suggestion is that, when it comes to considering how quickly police need to attend a call or determining the risk level of a missing person we apply a more sophisticated question sets and get a far better picture of the real threat, harm and risk.

For years, the police response to crime was based on types of crime. If it was a burglary, robbery, theft of or from motor vehicle then these tended to get a faster response than other calls PURELY because they were those types of crimes. This led to the ridiculous situation (noted by HMIC) where forces dictated that burglaries must be attended within the hour.

In and of itself this is an admirable aspiration but, when questions were asked of sergeants and inspectors as to why they didn’t get to a burglary in an hour it placed them under pressure to ensure this happened. As no such questioning occurred about threats, harassment or even domestic abuse cases it meant that a burglary would always take precedence over these calls (unless they required an immediate response) simply because it was a burglary.

Now ask yourself this – unpleasant though burglary is for any victim – which of those crime types presents the greatest potential risks to a a victim or potential victim?

The answer could be ANY of them depending on the circumstances but it is more likely to be harassment, threats or domestic abuse.

Does a burglary to the home of an elderly couple in winter warrant the same response as a burglary to a single person who has just returned from a summer holiday? Both are nasty offences but there was no assessment of the victim – just the crime type.

I think this flaw in logic has largely been recognised but we still lack subtly when it comes to looking at our response.

We have to move on from assessing crime by type and response by three labels. Each crime has a victim at the end of it and it is their reaction, their vulnerability and the risks to them which should actually dictate the speed and level of response.

What I would like to see is a new system where this threat, harm and risk is tested and scored at the point of contact. Not just for “threats to life” but for all calls to police in relation to crime and missing people.

This wouldn’t be onerous. It could be added in behind existing question sets used by call-takers. The response to certain questions triggering a number (taking factors such as crime type into consideration but also age, gender, nature of offence and key words and triggers into consideration.) At the end of a call this would all be added up and a score would be attached to the computer log.

Your dispatcher is then presented with a log which clearly explains where this call sits in relation to others on the screen. Rather than, as can exist now, 6 immediates, 34 priorities and a bunch of scheduled.

It is not a competition and each victim is important but there is no escaping the fact that some victims are at greater risk than others and can get lost in amongst those 34 “priority” calls which, on the face of it, all require the same “priority” response. In doing this at the very start police would have more properly assessed the vulnerability of and risk to a victim of potential victim. It would also add some consistency to proceedings but based on a deeper analysis.

We need to be much more subtle about this and three categories simply isn’t enough. Risk is missed this way and this could lead to tragedy. I am sure that there is sufficient evidence out there to demonstrate that this has already happened.

The police as a national entity are moving rapidly towards defining their role as dealing with threat, harm and risk. If we are really serious about this then we need to assess it, fully, in every case from the moment a call is received. As things stand we just have three categories of response.

It really is more complicated than that.

Some forces now have dedicated victim contact departments. These have been established to try and ensure that vulnerable victims are identified and receive enhanced contact and support and the feedback seems to be positive. Their vulnerability is assessed after an officer has attended and / or once the crime has been fully recorded.

I fully support this concept but believe that it comes too late in the process. I believe that the initial response to a call is as important because the vulnerability exists at that point. It is a good thing to identify a victim as needing enhanced support and to recognise that they are vulnerable but it could (in worst case situation) be a few days after initial contact with police that this depth of understanding is developed.

If this questioning was brought forward and formed part of the triage of the initial call then police could identify how quickly police need to respond – rather than how often they follow up.

With demand as it is, with calls currently being grouped into wide categories of attendance priority and with other calls leap-frogging existing calls – if you wait until a victim is actually seen before fully assessing the risk or threat they face – it could well be too late. 

The Young Ones

25 06 2015

Last night, I had the pleasure of doing something I hadn’t done in years. I went and did a “police talk” for a Cubs pack. Back in the day, as a neighbourhood officer, I used to do this kind of thing all the time but with promotions and role changes it is an opportunity which hasn’t presented itself all that often. 

It was always one of my favourite things to do as a beat constable. I enjoyed it so much that I even trained as an official Schools Liaison officer and I would spend as much time as duties allowed getting into classrooms and spending time with the kids.

There were several advantages to this for me. Firstly, it allowed me to get to know who all the children were and vice versa. This made life considerably easier outside of school. I could talk the kids by name; I was a familiar face to them and it enabled the free flow of information and conversation.

It allowed me the chance to set standards. Whilst the lessons and inputs I delivered were usually focussed on safety messages and such like I was able to discuss acceptable and sensible behaviour. If I were to see errant children on my rounds then the subsequent chat we had could refer back to those lessons and they were able to recount to me what had been discussed. The rules of the classroom extended into the real world.

Working, as I did, on an estate where the police weren’t everybody’s favourite people it also allowed me the chance to break down any impressions which may have been passed down from generation to generation without previous challenge. “That copper who came to our school was okay – maybe they aren’t all bastards after all.”

The bottom line is that I was able to deliver important safety and social lessons but I was able to build relationships.

And they were relationships which lasted.

Going back 12 years or so ago there was a lad in his teens who was part of a problem family and who seemed to be destined to head down the same path. If any name was going to appear on the top of the ASBO candidate list it would be his – for the purposes of this blog let us call him “Kieron.” My dialogue with him and his family was almost daily. But it reached a point where we had an understanding. He knew damn well that I was going to be all over him if he crossed the line but all this did was curb his behaviour to annoying rather than criminal.

On one occasion some incident had kicked off and he was the main suspect. My colleagues had turned up and there followed the traditional starburst and footchase whereupon some of the group had gone to ground. As it turned out, the attending officers didn’t know he was the main suspect but as soon as I heard the description over the radio I knew. I made my way to the scene to help out and went to the area where the pursuing officer had lost him.

I got out of the car. “Kieron!” I yelled. Silence. I waited a moment or two.

“KIERON! I know it’s you and I know you’re here.”

Twenty seconds later his head appeared from the top of the trees had climbed up.

“I’ll come down for you but no-one else!” he shouted. He had recognised my voice.

“Kieron, get down and stop being a prat.”* 

(* this sentence may be slightly edited)   

He came down and I arrested him. Job done.

Flash forward 10 years. I am now an Inspector working a late shift. Over the radio I hear a call for assistance in the custody unit. One of the detainees was threatening to kick off big time if anyone tried to take him out of the cell for interview. As I made my down to help out someone put his name over the air and a wry smile crossed my face.

I entered the custody unit to see three of my finest (and biggest) stood in the doorway of the cell. From my vantage point I could hear all kinds of things coming from that little room – particularly about what would happen if they did try and take him out for interview. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to go.

The custody sergeant approached me.

“This ones a bit handy, Guv.” (for he was Ex-Met) “Kick-Boxer and built like a brick shit-house.”

I checked the name and wandered towards the cell door. Before he saw me I saw him and there, in the cell, was a considerably bigger, fitter and stronger Kieron. He was in for some driving offences but had decided at the roadside to be belligerent and make it impossible for the officer to deal with by any other way than arrest.

He was still mouthing off when I tapped my colleagues on the shoulders. 

“Excuse me fellas. Let me try”

He wasn’t looking at me when I first spoke to him.

“Kieron, are you going to carry on like this or is this going to be like the time I got you down from that tree?”

His mouth genuinely dropped open “Mr Constable!”

I smiled. He smiled and – much to the utter bemusement of my colleagues – I walked towards him and we hugged.

After a couple of minutes of catching up and establishing what his problem was today I said that I would deal with it. But in return:

“This is my nick, these are my colleagues. You’ve never messed me about and I have always been straight with you. I expect you to treat them as you just treated me. So stop pratting about and let’s get on with it.” *

*NB – this sentence is HEAVILY edited

The rest was peaceful.

What this anecdote hopefully shows is the strength of relationship which can be developed, even with someone as problematic as Kieron, if you get there young enough.

Last nights talk to the Cubs was good natured fun. We split them into three groups and they took it in turn to do three activities. The first was a conversation about what the police do and “if there were no laws – what laws would you create and why?” The second activity asked them to look at pictures of people and write a detailed description. They were then shown another picture for only thirty seconds and had to then provide a written description from memory. The third activity was a line search through some nearby scrubland to help me recover the “stolen property” that had just been dumped.

The showstopper was the arrival of some of my colleagues from Ops who fortunately had time to turn up and spare half a hour with us. They brought some police cars and, more importantly, police dogs. We had just enough time to introduce the Cub Pack to the sniffer dog and the German Shepherd.

We even had enough time for a demonstration.

“Perhaps,” said the dog handler “the Boss might like to put on the bite sleeve and we can show everyone how he works.”

Well, the Boss did and, much to the delight of everyone was rudely bitten and shaken by the hairy land shark. It was my own fault for not doing what the dog handler told me and then calling him rude names.

(For anyone who is interested – yes – it does hurt through the bite sleeve, I had marks for ages and I wholeheartedly recommend not getting between the teeth of a police dog.)

But it was great. We all loved it – it was a great evening and at the end of it half the Cubs all wanted to join the police.

This got me thinking. There is much being said about the lack of diversity in the service and so a number of schemes have been introduced to try and change that. I am not sure any of them are working that well.

For me, the answer seems obvious. By the time you try and talk to school leavers it is quite likely that they will already have made some important decisions. Not only about the career path they want to take but also on how they view the police.

I haven’t been watching “The Met” because any TV programme on policing (fact or fiction) makes me angry. I am aware though that the most recent episode featured the death of a young man in London over a dispute about the selling of a bike. Something as trivial as that led to a boy being repeatedly stabbed. How bad have things got for this to be as common as it seems and for weapons of this kind to be carried and used as they are? Has life become that cheap?

I thought about the kids I spoke to last night – so full of questions and interest and ideas. So full of hope and energy and now most of them wanting to join the police when they grow up.

What will happen to them now – until they reach the age of those lads featured in that episode of “The Met” – and will the police have any further part to play in their lives?

As educators; as standard setters; as someone they can know and trust; as a symbol of what is right; as role models – as something they might one day like to aspire to be.

The police cannot act as parents or teachers but in many ways they can have an important role as both in the lives of young people.

Get into the schools, the youth clubs, the Cubs, the Scouts, the Brownies and Guides. Anywhere where young people are the police need to be. Talking, teaching, helping, steering.

My fear is that as Neighbourhood teams shrink then this kind of activity will disappear. It’s already happening as forces withdraw dedicated schools officers from their posts.

This is such a shame.

Getting to know people when they are young allows you to set an impression; to encourage and help mould them.

An early and then SUSTAINED relationship between the police and young people – in THEIR communities and environments could make such a difference. It could create an entirely different atmosphere, it could positively influence opinion and change minds. It could build trust and confidence in both directions. It could break down cultural barriers.

It could reduce weapons on the street. It could prevent tragic and pointless murders over the sale of a bicycle. 

And you know what? 

It could prove to be the most effective way of recruiting people from a wider range of diverse backgrounds than anything we have tried before. 

Some say “we can’t wait that long – change is needed now” and I understand that. But this is a long term game and is likely to have far better results than short term initiatives. This could lead to permanent cultural change in both directions and people deciding far earlier that a career in the police is not the sole preserve of white males.

School visits – police work?

If they are maintained from Reception right up to A-level age – they could prove to be the greatest way to improve trust in the police and could turn out to be the best and most diverse recruitment tool ever invented. 

Neighbourhood Policing – Too Valuable To Lose

23 06 2015

“The Political Challenge” debate at conference this year was notable for the differing visions of the future offered by the panellists. Whilst the Think-Tanks spoke passionately about improving technology and the seemingly limitless potential to do more with less, it was Jack Dromey MP, the shadow policing minister, who repeated his concerns about how current government policy risks eroding “the bedrock of policing.”

Mr Dromey was talking about Neighbourhood Policing. However, his party did not win the election and it was clear from that debate and the speech from the Home Secretary that it is the Think-Tanks who seem to have the monopoly on ideas for the future direction of the police service and that most of these ideas involve plugs or batteries.

There is room within policing for all of these wonderful and innovative IT solutions but they simply cannot replace a human being, in a uniform, working in a community.

Let me start by saying that I am a great believer in the concept and success of neighbourhood policing. For me it is the very essence of visible policing by consent. It is traditional and nothing demonstrates the value of the police at the heart of the community better. I have worked in Neighbourhood Policing in every rank – as a beat officer; as a beat sergeant and as local policing commander covering half of a county.

Particularly in the inspector rank I realised just how important the concept of neighbourhood policing is. It matters to people. It matters to the people who are elected by other people. It matters to community activists. It matters to charities. It matters to Town Clerks and religious leaders. It matters to the media. It matters to shop owners and headteachers. What key people in the community want and need is an identifiable police officer (and let us not forget PCSO’s) they can call directly. These are the people who run things and do things. They are the movers and shakers in a community. They need a direct line to the cops and neighbourhood policing provides it.

As the inspector for a neighbourhood policing area you sit on top of this tree and see the value of these relationships and how they lead to things getting done. It works both ways as well. You don’t agree with everything that people want or do but you can have meaningful and adult discussions. I once objected to the building of a high profile facility for young people in the area I was in charge of. The initial fall out from this was spectacular. But through negotiation and dialogue they learned that I wasn’t objecting to the facility itself just where they wanted to put it. We worked together and sorted it out. 

Some of my best officers had served in the same area for twenty years. Some had earned the QPM for doing so – and rightly so. What they didn’t know about and who they didn’t know in their patches simply wasn’t worth knowing. You cannot replace experience like that quickly.

Furthermore, neighbourhood policing does all those bits of policing that no-one else wants to do. It isn’t for everyone. A lot of it is low level stuff. Parking and speeding complaints; dog fouling; kids riding bikes where they shouldn’t be but this is the stuff that bothers people and makes them feel unsafe and unhappy.

Anyone who has ever sat at a local community priorities meeting will know the difference between what the public WANT police to do and other demands placed on the service from elsewhere. For years, the previous administration was telling us that the most important thing the police needed to do – and the thing which was taken as the mark of success or failure of a force – was to reduce and detect four types of acquisitive crime. Chief Constables survived in post on how well they did against these measures.

I’m not sure who told the previous government that this was important to people because I cannot think of a single public meeting I ever went to where it came up. Neighbourhood policing deals with things that matter to people and it is the most public facing and locally responsive and accountable element of the service.

Working with other agencies, enlisting local support, and visible presence can significantly reduce crime and disorder, deal with those who cause misery and divert others from the same path. This improves the atmosphere in communities and make them safer.

Neighbourhood policing is about problem solving. My biggest successes have involved working with other agencies or organisations in order to reduce crime and disorder. In the first area I took over as a beat officer I quickly learned that the biggest issue was how unsafe the town felt on a Friday night. Hordes of underage kids would drink alcohol to excess and roam the streets causing problems. Response officers spent most of the time being called there again and again. All they could do was stick a plaster on it and go on to the next call before coming back later. It never solved the issue.

I spent two weekends plotted up in a properly authorised covert observation point working out what was going on. I conducted plain clothes patrols and watched where people were going. This work led me to identify that there were perhaps three ringleaders and everyone else was just tagging on. Their tactic was to wait outside the off-licence and ask anyone and everyone who passed to go in and get them drink. There were plenty of people who did.

There was nothing to do in the area. The youth club was closed on a Friday. The local shop was a no go for most people who were afraid of the kids outside. To be fair to the kids try weren’t doing much wrong but they looked intimidating enough given their numbers and volume.

Ask the kids why they went there and they said it was because it was lit and they felt safer.

The next phase was enforcement. I spoke to the licensee and agreed to raise his ID age to 21 – it helped that I got all the other shops on board with this as well (this was in 2000 by the way – long before this idea became fashionable.) I enlisted the support of colleagues and we would attend in numbers and it wasn’t long before the area got “too hot” for the kids to hang around in. I also started using legislation on the ringleaders. Actually making them face the consequences of their actions.

This was never going to work on its own so the final phase was diversion. Working with as many other agencies and charities as I could (including the local professional football team) we got funding for a range of initiatives which would give the kids something to do. We built them shelters in areas they identified and which were far enough away from others so as not to cause problems. We put on football tournaments. We got a mobile youth club into town for the younger ones – on a Friday!

The outcome of this was a massive drop in calls. Now I am sure that Inspector Guilfoyle would have something to say about this but – in the days before we knew better – it resulted in an 80% drop in calls compared with the previous year. This was significant as it was the first drop in five years. (Original blog said 40% but I have just checked my old data and it was 80%.) 

Response officers told me that they had never known anything like it and were glad not to have to keep going back and forth to the same place every Friday night.

So much policing was involved in this – covert techniques, enforcement, high visibility patrol followed up with professional liaison with like minded colleagues from other organisations many of whom were working to the same ends. Combined resources and ideas.

Stories like this are replicated in every town in the country thanks to neighbourhood policing. As an inspector my teams stopped raves before they started and then made it impossible to hold another one in the same place again; they reduced alcohol consumption in young people; they made the vulnerable feel safe; they took out burglary families and had them evicted giving their towns their first peace in years; they dealt with parking and speeding problems; they raided drugs dens and cannabis factories; they recovered stashes of stolen property and they went to local meetings and took it on the chin that the police were doing NOTHING about dog fouling in the park.

Some say that neighbourhood policing isn’t really police work. I disagree. I believe it is policing in its purest form and at its most locally responsive. I have never felt more personally accountable as a police officer (until my current role as Tactical Firearms Commander) as I did when I was working in neighbourhood policing. I have certainly never been more accessible.

Neighbourhood policing is about IDENTITY. The public know their police and the police know their public.

Neighbourhood policing makes a positive impact in terms of visibility and in the flow of intelligence. This intelligence can be the off-chance conversation which starts a chain of events leading to detecting crime, saving of lives, providing support or even preventing a terrorist incident. PCSO’s add to this mix. I was a sergeant on a neighbourhood team when PCSO’s arrived. I was as sceptical as anyone. But I quickly saw that people would talk to them more than they ever would to an officer. The area was a tough estate with a history and anti-police feeling. People wouldn’t talk to the cops because they would be seen as a grass. However, this didn’t apply to PCSO’s. Don’t ask me why – I have no idea – but the intelligence flow went through the roof and the results (particularly allowing us to tackle an increasing drugs market) were astonishing.

Neighbourhood policing isn’t seen as sexy or attractive. It’s not about wearing jeans and baseball caps and fast cars. It isn’t about wearing suits and passing exams. And yet – without it – none of these more “elite” squads could properly function.

It’s the beat team who come in and reassure a worried community after a high profile policing operation or event. It’s the beat teams from who so much crucial crime fighting intelligence comes in. It solves crimes, it saves lives, it prevents terrorist incidents.

As Jack Dromey said – it is the bedrock of policing. It is its foundation and lifeblood and it is at risk.

Police Chiefs face a tough choice. I think that most recognise its importance but if they ring fence neighbourhoods then what will have to be done away with to pay for it? Many forces are amalgamating their neighbourhood teams with response teams. The end result being that neighbourhood teams get very quickly sucked into demands to answer outstanding calls. This is retrospective demand management not proactive neighbourhood policing.

In order to work, neighbourhood policing needs resources. It needs people – people who are dedicated solely to “walking about” and not distracted by the constant demands of the radio. It requires people who are free and available to talk to other people – about their concerns, about funding, about ideas, about diversion and about team work. It is about building relationships. It is about taking time to properly identify and sort out problems rather than just turning up and fighting fires.

Neighbourhood policing is at risk and if we lose it in its current guise then British policing will be the weaker and poorer for it. The service will become one which really does just turn up when bad things are happening, does what it can and moves on to the next call. Without the problem solving and the relationships which neighbourhood policing provides things will never improve.

There is not a single piece of facial recognition or predictive analytics software which can replace this. I’m sure they could complement the analysis but you then need someone to sit in the obs point, work with the licencees, patrol the streets, enforce the law, work with the local activists, apply for funding, go to the meetings, explain what is happening to the public and media. This takes time and it takes people.

There are some jobs that computers simply cannot do.

Neighbourhood policing is one of them. 

This is an extended version of an article Slipping Into Shadows which appears the the June 2015 edition of “Police” – The Police Federation Magazine 


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,575 other followers