Last Friday, the new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, sent an open letter to ‘Police Leaders of England and Wales’.
She began by thanking the police ‘on behalf of the nation’ for the ‘high standard of British policing’ that was shown during the period of national mourning. This had been an enormous operation ‘in the face of an unprecedented security challenge’.
However, she went on to say that during the last few years there had been a ‘perceived deterioration of public confidence in the police’ with too many high profile incidents that had ‘shattered public trust in communities across the UK’. As a result, ‘culture and standards in the police have to change, particularly in London’. Trust had to be restored.
It is hard to know how true all of this is the further you go from London. I know that in the north, the Greater Manchester force and Cleveland are in ‘special measures’, as are Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Staffordshire as well as the Met in the south, but I have not picked up any great worsening of public trust and confidence in South Yorkshire.
On the contrary, whenever I am out and about with police officers at various community events, people are always pleased to see them – from the inner city to the rural village. Yes, they would like to see more of them, and yes they would like to see more crimes solved and people brought to justice. But, I don’t think we should talk ourselves into a crisis or think that what has happened in London has to be the lens through which all policing is viewed and judged.
The Home Secretary then goes on to talk about what she would like to see going forward. I would want to agree with much of what she says. We must have visible and responsive policing. The police must treat victims with respect and work to the priorities of the public – which is why police and crime commissioners draw up a local Police and Crime Plan. They must drive down anti-social behaviour (falling across South Yorkshire) and neighbourhood crime. For all these reasons I hold a monthly Public Accountability Board, open to the public and viewable on-line, at which I ask the force to report district by district on these issues.
The Home Secretary also said that the public expect that ‘an officer will visit them after a crime such as burglary’. This is true. This is the public expectation. I am often contacted by people who say they were burgled and no one came to see them. But the Home Secretary is wrong in suggesting that the reason for this is that ‘the police have to spend too much time on symbolic gestures’ such as ‘initiatives on diversity and inclusion’ which, she believes, ‘may take precedence over common sense policing’.
We often discuss the police response to neighbourhood crimes in the Public Accountability Board. I know, therefore, that the reason the police are not able to visit everyone burgled is because there are not enough police officers available to do it. So they have to triage, calling according to a set of priorities.
If, for instance, there is cctv, witnesses and a good chance of fingerprints or DNA, then a call will be arranged, but if none of these apply there may be little or no further evidence to be obtained by calling over and above what can be reported on the phone call. In that case, an officer’s time might be better spent going to a house where there is forensic evidence. And if evidence can be obtained it might not be vital to have someone attending the same day and an appointment can be made. In any event, if a person is vulnerable – elderly or obviously very frightened – then there should be a call. But even if no visit is made, it remains vital that burglaries are called in and recorded, because that is how patterns of criminal activity can be detected and criminals ultimately caught.
If the issue is an overstretched force, abandoning initiatives on diversity and inclusion – which the Home Office wanted to see until now – is not going to make one jot of difference. There are not scores of officers involved in this rather than tackling crime. And in any case, trying to ensure the force is more diverse and more inclusive is simply part of the recruitment process.
If we take the long view of crime – over a decade rather than twelve months – and excluding fraud there are long-term downward trends. If we are to make further significant progress we need the new ministers to listen not only to the vox populi but also to chief constables and police and crime commissioners about what will make a difference.
We are currently seeing two things happen that will not make the next few years any easier for policing. On the one hand, many experienced officers are retiring. On the other, many more new recruits are joining but they will not achieve full operational competency for two or three more years. This increase in police numbers is to be welcomed but public expectation has got to be managed around that, or that in itself will damage public confidence if people think the new officers will be fully trained as soon as they are recruited.
If the Home Secretary wants to free up more officer time for tackling neighbourhood crimes and making calls, then we need help reducing other types of demand on the police – such as dealing with people in mental health crises. But that means strengthening other public services – such as mental health services. Without that, police resources will remain stretched.
My home town is Leicester. How it has changed since I lived there! The city I knew as a boy was ‘mono’. Mono-ethnic, mono-cultural and mono-faith. It is now ’plural’. Ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse. There are Christian churches, Jain and Hindu Temples, Sikh gurdwaras, Islamic mosques and Jewish synagogues. It was possibly the first city where ethnic minorities were the majority of the population.
When ethnic minority communities came here from the Indian sub-continent and east Africa, they brought their historic enmities with them. But the city always prided itself on managing these diverse faiths, cultures and ethnicities well. On the whole, the communities might keep themselves to themselves, but there was little tension and a great deal of shared celebration when it came to the major festivals – Christmas, Diwali, Rohini Vrat, Eid and Hannukah.
Until now. Last week parts of the city were ripped apart by ethnic and religious disturbance which had their origins abroad and were fanned by a great deal of misinformation on social media.
The Home Secretary, who took her oath when becoming an MP on Buddhist scriptures, might ponder this. For in the middle of these community tensions, trying to understand and calm what was going on, were the police. At times like this, it can only be helpful if the police force looks like the diverse communities it seeks to police. And it can only be helpful if the police understand the different communities it polices and is aware of religious and cultural sensitivities.
Isn’t that what diversity and inclusion are all about?