PCC Blog 117

I write this on the weekend before the new prime minister is announced.

Whichever candidate turns out to be successful, both have said things about crime and policing during their campaigning that have been populist but not necessarily realistic. Chief Constable Richard Lewis, the police lead for performance on the National Police Chiefs’ Council, has called the ‘back to basics’ rhetoric of one candidate ‘meaningless’ and ‘unwise’.

Perhaps one of the more obvious examples of unwisdom concerns targets for reducing crime. If forces are set from the centre targets for particular crimes and are judged on their performance in league tables, that could – almost certainly would – drive perverse and undesirable behaviours: forces may become less vigorous in encouraging people to report crime, they would inevitably concentrate more resources on the target crimes to the relative neglect of others, and they might be less scrupulous in ensuring that all crimes were recorded. We may regret this, but we should recognise the possibility; it has happened before. In these circumstances, we would rightly be concerned that recorded crime statistics were not telling the whole story.

In South Yorkshire we would be especially concerned. The reason the police here failed to recognise the growing scourge of child sexual abuse between 1997 and 2013 was in part because they were concentrating on other crimes that had been made targets. Lessons learnt then must not be  lost because ‘targets’ are a popular idea and sound like common sense.

There is always a tendency on the part of governments to want to run everything from the centre, regardless of evidence that this rarely works. In the case of policing, it cuts across the government’s own declared objective of only a few years ago for more local democratic direction when it introduced police and crime commissioners (PCCs). They were to set local priorities in a Police and Crime Plan and have them endorsed in PCC elections.

There is, however, one area where the new government could make a decisive difference to policing with a national decision, and this could have a bigger impact on crime figures than setting some arbitrary target.

One major reason why police officers are not visiting everyone who is burgled or whose car is stolen, for instance, is not because officers are choosing to hold ‘debates on Twitter’ rather than police the streets – as one of the campaigns alleged – but because they are overwhelmed by demand. Resources are stretched. They can’t do everything. They have to prioritise. Yet much of that demand is not ‘crime’ and some of it should not involve the police anyway – such as dealing with people in mental health crisis.

One major consequence of the years of austerity was that the police became the default emergency service for the welfare state. As a result. police numbers now give a false impression of the resources available to fight crime when officers are also having to do so many other things – such as finding missing persons and assisting people who are emotionally and psychologically unwell.

So, if we want the police to fight crime we need to deal with this sort of non-crime demand differently. We need a new group of professional people – Welfare Support Assistants – who have appropriate medical training, perhaps employed by the NHS or the local authority, who can work alongside the police and deal with those incidents that at the moment are taking so much police time.

We could probably calculate how much police time this would free up and, with hindsight, it may have been better to use some of the funding that has gone into increasing police numbers to do this instead.

Celebrating twenty years of PCSOs

On September 7, Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) will have been in existence for 20 years. My good friend and colleague, David Blunkett, was the Home Secretary at the time. I can truthfully say that I have almost never found a community that did not rate their PCSO highly. The PCSO has often been the only stable police officer in many communities and valued accordingly.

PCSOs wear police uniforms, but they are police staff, not warranted officers. They form about 6.8% of all police employees with about one quarter of all PCSOs in the Met.

They were not immediately accepted by everyone. Some police officers thought it was a way of having more bodies on the ground without paying for trained, warranted officers. But they soon proved their worth and within seven years they had reached the peak of their numbers at 16,814. Then austerity and the cuts came. Unlike warranted officers, however, they could be made redundant, and some were in order to save money and balance the books during the dark years of austerity. In South Yorkshire, their numbers were reduced though the money saved was used to bolster warranted officer numbers.

PCSOs are part of a neighbourhood team (called at one time Safer Neighbourhood Teams). Over the years they have performed a range of duties: high visibility patrols; tackling anti-social behaviour; crowd control; directing traffic at public events; getting evidence; supporting front-line officers. One of their most important functions has been engagements with communities. This was especially important during the austerity years when neighbourhood teams were subsumed into response teams (to save money) and the PCSO remained the only regular face of the force in communities. Now the neighbourhood teams are being rebuilt and PCSOs take their place in them.

I am sometimes asked why PCSOs are not given powers of arrest. But the consequence of doing this would be that every time they made an arrest, they would have to leave the neighbourhood and go off to a custody suite to process those arrested. The whole point of the PCSO is that they are rooted in their neighbourhood.

In recent years, some PCSOs have chosen to become warranted officers. But next year more will be needed in South Yorkshire and a recruitment drive will begin.

We thank the PCSOs for the last twenty years. We wonder what will be asked of this most resilient part of the force in the next twenty years as the world around us changes.

End of the road?

How extraordinary! Last week, I wrote about a letter I had received from National Highways, who are responsible for our major roads, telling me that Smart Motorways remain the safest form of major road that we have. I felt this was something of a provocation because my opposition to them is well-known. I have written to them in the past saying I don’t believe they are safe and I don’t believe the public believes they are safe either. Now, as I write this both candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and so Prime Minister, have announced their opposition to what they have each called ‘the smart motorways experiment’ and look to stop the programme. They have both quoted statistics during the hustings which suggest they are not at all safe.

I am pleased about this, but I do find it odd that it has taken an election campaign and questions put to the candidates during this time to finally elicit from two people who were at the heart of the last government their real misgivings about smart motorways and their opposition to any further extension of the programme. I am sure there is still a great deal more to learn about how this became government policy and how ministers persisted with it for so long, but at the moment it does seem as if the new government will stop any further expansion.

I think part of the problem in the end was what analysts call confirmation bias. Unconsciously, we only see those statistics and that evidence that confirms the position we have already taken and don’t see or ignore what does not support us. I think National Highways and the Department of Transport fell into this trap.

I now look forward to reading how they both rationalise the halting of the programme.

But we need to go further. Stopping any more smart motorways is a first step. Existing ones have to have hard shoulders restored or built. We need not only to be safe when driving along them but to feel safe as well. This is not quite the end of the road.

Stay safe.