PCC Blog 126

The King and Queen Consort came to Doncaster last week. They came to preside over a short but important ceremony – giving the civic authorities the Letters Patent which turned Doncaster from a town into a city.

I went with the Chief Constable to meet them in the appropriately grand setting of the Mansion House, together with the Lord Lieutenant, two elected mayors, local MPs, the diocesan bishop and others.

The occasion went very well and was well policed. No eggs were thrown – ‘waste not, want not’ is South Yorkshire’s motto – and the children outside the Mansion House were in good voice. Before the King spoke, there were brief speeches from the civic mayor and the Mayor, but the words that drew lengthy applause were confidently and faultlessly delivered by 9 year old Amelia Beckingham, the junior civic mayor, from Copley School, Sprotbrough. It was a joyful and positive occasion for Doncaster.

Residential burglary

What a pity, therefore, that on the same day, the BBC chose to broadcast a national story about unsolved burglaries using a street in Doncaster as the starting point. Burglaries that do not result in a charge are a worry everywhere in the country and the reporter gave disturbing national statistics, but he interspersed this with the distressed voices of some Doncaster residents. For Doncaster, the good news of the King’s visit was soured by the juxtaposition of this report of unsolved crimes.

The report was long on identifying the issues – such as low rates of charging for burglaries (5% ) – but very short on explaining why this might be the case and even shorter on teasing out what might be done about it. If anything – especially after the local voices were aired – the impression was given that for unfathomable reasons, police nationwide just won’t turn out when it comes to house breaking. We were left feeling anxious but none the wiser.

The reasons that burglaries are hard to detect are not hard to understand. Offenders know how to avoid leaving finger prints or DNA. They know that even where there is cctv, if they wear a balaclava or pull the peak of their baseball cap down, they can keep their face hidden from the camera. If they come in a vehicle they will use false number plates. Often, therefore, there may be little immediate forensic evidence.  Detectives have to get smarter by building a picture – does this burglary fit a wider pattern? are there known offenders in the area?  and so on – if a case is going to be made that will satisfy the Crown Prosecution Service and then the courts.

There is a lot of preventive work going on that was not mentioned – the use of Smartwater to mark possessions, the identification of hot spots and patrols in those areas, the more intensive management of ex-offenders, the installation of ANPR cameras, and so on. And South Yorkshire police seek to visit at some point every (house) burglary and officers have a checklist to ensure that all possible lines of enquiry have been followed up.

But I was still left puzzled by the overall tenor of the reports.

We don’t blame ambulance drivers because people may be waiting for an ambulance for many hours. Nor do we blame consultants or nurses because operations are having to be postponed. We understand the pressures that are stretching scarce resources to breaking point. We understand what years of underfunding and austerity did to these public services. So why do we suppose that policing is any different? Human resources – police officers – are scarce. Even after the 20,000 uplift there will still be forces where numbers are fewer than they were in 2010.

Resources are stretched but demand on the service rises remorselessly. So, as with ambulances and operations, there have to be priorities. We understand this with regard to the NHS, why do we struggle to see the same issue with policing? And, critically, if we don’t understand this now, what will happen to the relationship between police and public if we are now on the brink of another period of cuts to public services, including the police?

Overcoming addiction

From time to time I get emails from people who have seen begging, or drunkenness, or those on drugs, in town and city centres. What they do not see, however, are the many more who recover from their addictions and are no longer on the streets.

In September, National Recovery Month was held. This was an attempt to raise awareness of the work done by various organisations to help people recover from addiction and to hear some of the stories of those who have turned their lives around. I use some of the funding I receive to support this work. But there were so many other things going on in September I am not sure how far National Recovery Month impinged on our consciousness. So I have been re-reading some of the accounts I was sent by Andy Kershaw, a local journalist, about the journeys to recovery people in South Yorkshire have made. Some are quite remarkable and some of the comments they have made about addiction and recovery are very insightful.

Take Josh, for example. He is now 35 and was born into a family where both his parents were drug addicts. ‘I was born addicted to heroin…’ he says. His mother and father fed their habit by being successful criminals. Unusually, they did not lead a chaotic lifestyle but ‘actually functioned well’. So smoking crack and heroin with them seemed ‘normal’. By the age of fourteen he was ‘streetwise, quite aggressive and about as big in build as I am now, and I went down the wrong path completely with drugs and violence’. A decade of criminality and prison sentences followed. His life began to change when two people he had become close to in prison were murdered and it ‘dawned on me that I was throwing my life away’.

He then said, ‘I think prison saved me in a lot of ways. It certainly stopped me ending up on the streets again.’

This brought me up short because I often hear people saying that prison can never do any good.  But it was while in prison that he came to see not just that drugs were the problem but why they were the problem. The great revelation was this: ‘The more addicted you get to drugs, the less anyone wants to be involved with you.’ He had unconsciously retreated into a sad narcissistic bubble.

He realised that if his rehabilitation was to be successful he needed support around him. He found this at specialist supportive accommodation, The Greens, in Sheffield who help him to use the services he needs at the time he needs them.

But as he says, ‘The absolutely first step is putting drugs down, which was the easy part, but its staying stopped that’s the hard part….’ So he surrounds himself with ‘well addicts, not active users…’  He lives one day at a time – ‘it’s a daily struggle to keep well’ – but now wants to educate himself and find a career. He has completed a course to be a barber and is a volunteer with a charity that helps people turn their lives around. All this keeps him well now ‘because my brain is still set up as that former person, it’s really against me and it’s a daily struggle to stay well.’

He summed up his experience like this: ‘I liked the feelings drugs gave me, but I hated the person they turned me into.’

Drugs lie behind so much crime. They ruin lives, as we see every day on our streets. But there are many success stories. We just don’t see them or hear enough about them.

Stay safe