One of the things I am required to do as Police and Crime Commissioner, is to gauge public opinion and try to ensure that it is reflected in the priorities of the police service. The reason for this is quite simple. Policing in this country is by consent. The police need to know, therefore, what they have to do to keep public trust and confidence.
So far so good. But how do you find out what public opinion is across the four districts of South Yorkshire – Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley – when each district and the communities within each district are so very different? South Yorkshire has ex-mining villages, inner-city areas, leafy suburbs, university campuses and rural communities.
I have a number of means of assessing public opinion – from telephone surveying to small tests of views at the various shows and events some of my officers attend. People also write to me and email. And I read the Star!
One of the most important ways is to meet members of the public at the various meetings I am invited to. Over the next few weeks, for instance, I will be with Cantley and Branston Parish Council, a Probus group in Dore, Rother Valley South Area Assembly and Cawthorne Parish Council.
But what I have discovered is that there is no such thing as a unanimous public opinion.
I went to one meeting where people were adamant that they wanted to see more uniformed officers out on the streets. But at another they said this would just cause panic and alarm in their area. So I have to find the right balance.
Wherever I go, however, and whatever the audience, everyone says they want to ‘feel safe’. Safe in their homes. Safe in public places. Safe by day and safe by night. And here is the difficulty. You can record the number of crimes or acts of anti-social behaviour in an area, but how do you measure a feeling of safety, especially when it does not always correspond to crime figures?
There are parts of South Yorkshire where people tell me they feel ‘very safe’ and parts where they tell me they feel ‘less safe’. But when I look at the crime and anti-social behaviour statistics, they don’t always match up.
I visited one very attractive and relatively prosperous place where people complained about high levels of anti-social behaviour which made them fearful at night. This turned out out to be noise from people closing their car doors after leaving a rather nice local restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. I can think of other places that would be glad to swap their anti-social behaviour for this!
Nevertheless, everyone must be listened to and then a judgement made about how best to deploy officers and PCSOs. So in 2016, keep inviting me to your meetings and your groups. That is the best way I can get the feel of public opinion and test out what helps communities to feel safe as well as to be safe.