Neighbourhood Policing – Too Valuable To Lose
“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