PCC Blog 132

Every New Year is a triumph of hope over experience.

We wish one another a happy new year and hope that we have seen the end of whatever was bad in the old. Things can only get better. Or at least not get any worse. All this we say to ourselves as well as to one another, despite knowing that we have said it so many times before on previous New Years.

But perhaps we are not in denial after all. We are realists and know that if things are to be better, we have a part to play in making it so, and the New Year offers us a chance to re-set the dial and make that fresh start happen. New Year is about renewed commitment and rekindled energy, not serendipity or magic.

This year is no exception…. including for policing.

This year, the police will be welcoming many new recruits – which is where the hope and energy springs from. In South Yorkshire we have been recruiting new cohorts for some time. This year, the first of those recruits will have gained full operational competency and will be able to be deployed across the force and across the county. That is the good news of 2023. Of course, they will have to be funded, not just now, but in the years to come, and that is going to require some hard decisions about where some of that money is to come from, including the question of the level of precept – a decision that I shall have to make in January for 2023-2024.

There is, then, optimism as we start 2023; but it is not joy illimited. The whole of the public sector is about to enter another period of austerity, when every year feels like a crisis, and that will have consequences that will play out over many future years.

One well-understood consequence of budget restrictions in the public sector is that it becomes harder and harder to think about the future: our focus is relentlessly on managing the present and getting through another difficult financial year. Horizon scanning, looking to the more distant future, seems like an unaffordable luxury. But we have to do it, because if we don’t, in a year or two’s time, the IT will be antiquated and not up to the job, the analysis necessary for predicting changes in crime will not have been done, the workforce will have the wrong mix of skills, and we will be constantly wrong-footed by the criminals.

The current state of the NHS should be a warning to all other areas of public service. To take one glaringly obvious example.

One crucial reason why there is a shortage of nurses and doctors and specialist consultants, is because the NHS didn’t have a workforce plan all those years ago when people would have had to begin their training. Now we have to cope with a crisis while importing nurses and doctors from abroad and making ever greater use of agency staff.

And in the light of what has happened in the NHS, we can see further coming dangers for the justice system which in part begin with policing and the increased numbers of officers. It makes little sense now to increase police numbers if the criminal justice system – the courts, the crown prosecutors, defence barristers, the prisons – are not going to be able to cope with more offenders being caught, prosecuted and convicted. We have not planned sufficiently and there is not the capacity in the system. Yet the whole point of having additional officers is, presumably, to catch more criminals. We are being set up to fail.

South Yorkshire Police now has a Futures Board. Its task is to do that hard thinking: what do the economic, social and cultural changes that are going on around us mean for the future of society and so policing.

This is one area where answers cannot be written on the back of an envelope or a postcard.

Local police

From time to time someone will write to me to say the police are never in their area. When I look into matters they are invariably wrong. What they mean is that they are unaware of what police activity there is in their locality.

Fortunately, local neighbourhood police teams are getting better at communicating to their communities what they are doing. One team in Sheffield reported this to their residents just after Christmas:

– Conviction and prison for 27 months for an offender dealing on Creswick Street, Walkley

– 18 months conviction and imprisonment with 2 months already on remand for offender growing cannabis on Walkley Bank Road

– Found and arrested female wanted since July for failing to appear at court for significant offences of violence here and in North Yorkshire

– Prolific shoplifter in Upperthorpe had stolen from three local shops and breached his Criminal Behaviour Order – in jail for 4 months

– 2 offenders growing large quantities of cannabis on Middlewood Road. We raided, arrested and these two were jailed for 18 months, already remanded for two

The neighbourhood sergeant wrote: ‘6 offenders in prison for a total of 76 months… The secret to all this is close community links and dedicated proactive policing in our area…’

Absolutely right. I congratulate the Walkley and Hillsborough Neighbourhood Team. As we strengthen neighbourhood teams with additional officers, this is what we hope to see rippling across South Yorkshire.

Exercising restraint

The headline in The Star was arresting: ‘Police are using restraint more’. This is another way of saying that the police are using force more – and that made me sit up. Force includes the use of handcuffs or wrestling someone to the ground – so serious matters. But I wasn’t aware of any surge in the use of force, so I looked more closely at what the paper appeared to be suggesting in its headline – which was a big headline over a story occupying half a page.

The report was comparing Home Office figures for the use of force in the year to March 2022 with the year to March 2020, the year before the pandemic really took hold. (Everyone accepts that the time of lock-downs and restrictions distorted ‘normal’ crime figures and should not be used to compare other years.) It had figures for all police forces. The use of force in South Yorkshire had gone up. So given the startling headline, how dramatic was the rise?

I looked for the figures, which were given by the paper in the report. Force had been used 6,845 times in the year to March 2022. This was up from 6,806 in 2019-2020. A rise of – I’m sure you have got there already – 1%.

One percent! You could say – and the headline would have been more accurate – ‘Little change in police use of force’. You could even say, ‘No change’, since this is not particularly statistically significant.

The report also had another detail in it. The small rise in South Yorkshire, it seems, was in some contrast to elsewhere in the country, where overall the use of force increased from 492,000 incidents to 608,000 when the two years were compared.

We take the use of force very seriously in South Yorkshire. It is something I ask the Independent Ethics Panel to keep an eye on. So the fact that the use of force has scarcely increased at all even though there are now more police on the streets than there were in 2019, is the better conclusion to draw. The headline would not be as dramatic – ‘No change in police use of force’ – and it would require the journalists, of course, to exercise – how shall I put it – a little more restraint.

Happy New Year

Stay safe