It’s that time of the year – local elections – when politicians, national and local, are sometimes given to saying things that are more about making headlines than making policy, especially when it comes to the criminal justice system or policing. You can never be quite sure how serious the comments are and whether they will result in action. Nevertheless, we need to think matters through, just in case.
A common and popular theme is the suggestion that there is too much bureaucracy and red tape in policing which must be cut back or eliminated. According to national media, this is what the policing minister said last week. And who could disagree? Who, after all, could be in favour of ‘unnecessary’ form filling by officers? They should be out on the streets catching criminals, not poring over their laptops. If I wanted an easy round of applause at a community meeting, saying this would be a sure-fire way of getting it.
This year, the National Police Chiefs’ Council – the representative body for all the Chief Constables – has fuelled this particular debate by saying that it believes the police could save 443,000 hours of time by stopping certain time-wasting activities that at the moment officers are obliged to do. I have no idea how sound the chiefs’ research has been, but I am sure there are some things police officers could cease doing that would free up time and pose no great risks – because it’s the risks of not doing things that, presumably, were once thought worth doing, that is the critical issue. So I hope that what the chiefs identified are the same things that the policing minister is now saying the police should not do. If they are not, they have given the minister an apparent green light for his own list of what is unnecessary and bureaucratic.
So what does the minister propose?
Unfortunately, at the time I write this we have no details but only a broad sketching out of what he means. He believes that officers should no longer routinely report certain ‘sub crime’ incidents. So, for instance, if the police are called to a public disturbance and the incident has been ‘resolved’ by the time they get there, or is ‘quiet’ when they do, there will be no requirement to record it. (If a constable thought it should be recorded he or she would have to get the approval of the sergeant – which probably means they will rarely ask.)
Again, this may seem like common sense, avoiding the logging of relatively low level, perhaps even trivial, matters. But suppose this was a domestic incident that had died down when officers arrived, and suppose it was not logged. Suppose this happened more than once, with the same people involved – and no recording. We can see how this could soon result in something more serious being missed.
There are certain crimes that have a pre-history. Domestic abuse, coercive and controlling behaviour, stalking and harassment, can be spotted over time, but only when a pattern of behaviour starts to emerge; it is not necessarily seen with a one-off incident. If a case is to be made in court – about coercion or harassment – it is the pattern of behaviour not the one-off incident that will carry weight. How is that pattern to be seen by the police or be available to the court if those sub crime incidents are no longer going to be recorded? My guess would be that many women, who are already anxious about going to the police, may be even more inhibited if we are not careful.
The Home Office say that changing these rules will free a degree of police time equivalent to having an extra 200 or more officers on the streets. But it could so easily lead to the police missing valuable clues that could prevent more serious crime later on. It will need very careful monitoring to ensure, for example, that the gains made since 2015, when coercive control was criminalised, are not thrown away.
So changes are coming in the name of reducing bureaucracy and eliminating wasting police time. It will be popular, but it is not without risk.
On the beat
But we will be seeing more police on patrol in the coming year.
We have received funding from the Home Office to have extra patrols in hot spot areas for violence and in hot spot areas for anti-social behaviour (ASB). Academic research has shown that patrols of relatively short duration have the effect of suppressing crime and ASB in those areas over a reasonable period of time following the patrols and without simply displacing the activity elsewhere.
What I find interesting about this is that the public have been calling for more visible policing – patrols – for as long as I can remember, but it has never found favour nationally until research has shown it works. I believe in evidence based policing, but we should not let it close down our own instincts for what works. Sometimes we have to go with that and let the research catch up.
New High Sheriff
I went to the Sheffield Combined Courts to see the new High Sheriff, Professor Jaydip Ray, take up his post.
High Sheriffs have their origins in Saxon England when kings divided their kingdoms into shires for administrative purposes and each shire had a Shire Reeve (Sheriff) as local leader. The Norman French kept the office after the conquest of 1066 – and every schoolchild knows about the (bad) Norman Sheriff of Nottingham pursuing our (good) Saxon local man, Robin of Loxley. Their job was to collect revenues on behalf of the king, raise soldiers when need arose and administer justice in the Shire court.
Today, the position is largely ceremonial. There are 55 High Sheriffs across the country serving for one year. They choose their successors by proposing three names to the monarch who ‘pricks’ the name of one of them with a bodkin from a parchment. They are non-political. They are present when royalty visit and have a responsibility to ensure the welfare of the judges, particularly High Court judges when they are on circuit. In the past I have been to small private dinner parties hosted by the High Sheriff for visiting judges. But their main functions now – for which they are not paid – is to support the justice system, law enforcement agencies and the emergency services, and to encourage the voluntary sector.
High Sheriffs come from a variety of backgrounds. The immediate past High Sheriff was a retired army officer, the present is an active doctor and academic – he is professor of Otology/Neurotology at Sheffield.
A small group of us gathered in a courtroom with judges and barristers while Professor Ray took the High Sheriff’s sword and assumed his new office. We wish him well.
It’s not just police officers that are being recruited. South Yorkshire Police are currently recruiting for the volunteer Cadets.
If you have ever been to the Rotherham Show or a police service in the cathedral, you may have seen the young cadets on parade or forming a guard of honour. They always look amazingly smart in their police cadet uniforms.
Cadets, who must live in South Yorkshire, should be 15 years of age by 31 August 2023 and no older than 17 by 31 March 2024. They are based in each district – Barnsley Rotherham, Doncaster and Sheffield. They meet each Wednesday evening between 1830 and 2000 in term time, starting in September.
Cadets take part in a range of activities and training and also learn about the various roles within the police – mounted section, dog handlers, detectives, special operations, and so on. They may work alongside neighbourhood officers and also assist the police with some of their operations – undercover work to spot those retailers that sell fireworks or alcohol to the under aged.
Applicants may be background checked, but previous incidents with the police are not necessarily an automatic bar to joining.
If you know any young people who might be interested, there is an application form available online that will need returning by 30 April.