PCC Blog 156

Earlier this month, Andy Cooke, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), published his Annual Assessment of Policing in England and Wales 2022. This is something the chief inspector presents to parliament each year in which he seeks to capture the principal findings of his inspectors during their work in the previous year and his sense of the general health of policing in the country.

Unfortunately he did this just before national political debate was almost entirely consumed by the controversy that followed the decision of a former Prime Minister to resign his seat in parliament and the way in which he chose to speak about that. This was a pity because the chief inspector had many things to say that we should all take note of. His findings were largely lost as a result.

Most will have registered his general comment – repeated in different ways throughout the report – that he couldn’t recall a time ‘when the relationship between the police and the public was more strained than it is now’.

In one way that seems hardly surprising, given all the shocking instances of bad police behaviour that have dominated the media for the past year, not least, though not entirely, within the Met. But in another way, it seems strange.

The chief inspector says that one reason for the lack of confidence in the police is that they ‘aren’t always focusing on the issues that matter most to the public’ (page 5).

Those issues must surely include reducing crime; this should be seen as the top priority for the police. If crime is falling, therefore, you might reasonably expect public confidence to go up.

So it probably comes as a surprise to read on (page 8) this: ‘Crime is going down….’ He goes on: ‘England and Wales are arguably safer than they have ever been’. He sets out a table taken from statistics gathered through the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) which is generally recognised as the most reliable source of crime data since it captures all crimes, including those that are not reported to and recorded by the police. This shows a long-term reduction in crime, excluding fraud and computer misuse, since the mid-1990s when it reached a peak.

Of course, not all this reduction is due to police activity. Householders are getting better at securing their properties and car manufacturers have made vehicles more secure. But this and policing has seen crime fall.

So how can it be that if we ask the police to cut crime and crime is being steadily reduced, public opinion is, apparently, not influenced by this? The chief inspector gives part of the answer.

He notes that during the course of a year, most people have no contact with the police at all – about 16%. People’s perceptions of crime and policing are, therefore, driven by the media. But this is not just the traditional media – the press and the broadcasters – it is also social media. The chief inspector writes, ‘Perception is equally as important as reality.’ Social media can amplify the impact a crime can have; it can also lead to the rapid spreading of false information – something we saw last week in Wath when a misleading account of someone’s alleged actions led to a man being attacked.

But at a time when there is so much attention on poor police behaviour, it gets harder to have encouraging stories given any space and they are soon drowned out anyway.

What do we see in South Yorkshire?

Two things – and again something of a paradox. While general trust and confidence has fallen – as the chief inspector notes – victim satisfaction is stable. In other words, at present, those who have actual contact with the police – victims of crime – on the whole remain satisfied with how they are treated and looked after, though that is not to deny that levels of victim satisfaction need to be higher.

And the warning signs are there. Demand for police services continues to rise. But it will be sometime yet before the newly recruited officers are all trained and fully deployable. As we have noted before, the next year or two will be very testing for all police forces, including our own.

West meets East

On Monday this week I am speaking to a group of senior police officers, men and women, from India. As part of their training they are spending a week at Sheffield Hallam University and with South Yorkshire police.  I met a similar group last year.

They come form the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh. When I asked them the size of the population they have to police, they said 72 million! They have four cities that are over 1m including the capital Bhopal. (This was the city where in 1984 a leak of gas from the Union Carbide pesticide plant killed 2,000 people and harmed thousands more.) But as well as sizeable towns and cities, there are also large numbers of villages in rural areas. While over 60% of people speak Hindi, there are at least seven other languages spoken – and each officer I met was multi-lingual, including being able to speak English. People are religious, mostly Hindu, but with a sizeable Muslim population as well as Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians. All of which presents a real challenge.

So what can they learn from us, a more secular society, with our population of 1.2m and no city over 1m? What can we learn from them?

In part I think there is always value in professional officers comparing notes with one another. It gives you insights into your own methods and practice which might not have occurred to you before. It sparks fresh thinking. More specifically, they want to hear about our basic approach – the Peelian principle of policing by consent, neighbourhood policing, our problem solving approach, our use of research in helping to understand and tackle crime, and so on.

Last year I was intrigued to learn that they had some police stations that were specifically for women – for women to report crime, for female suspects, staffed by women officers. Was there something we could learn from this? One of my staff told me that while holidaying in Goa on the Indian west coast last year he saw a pink police car indicating female officers were in it, presumably to give reassurance to women and girls.

What can we learn from them? Hearing their final reflections on the week will surely give us plenty to think about.

A funeral at the Minster

The chief constable and I attended the funeral of John Holt, a former High Sheriff and Vice Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire in Doncaster Minster last Friday. The Minster, which has the dimensions of a cathedral, was full – a tribute to John and the impact he made on the lives of so many in the county. Since retiring as a lawyer he had worked in a voluntary capacity for many good causes, including a long spell for Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice. The tributes were heartfelt. The service was moving with some fine music by the organist and minster choir.

I first came across John when he was High Sheriff. A key part of the role of High Sheriff is to support and encourage those who uphold law and order – the judges and the police – which he did.

Listening to the tributes one realised how much our lives and the life of our communities are enriched by people like John who give freely of their time, talents and energy.

In the setting of the minster we prayed that he might rest in peace and rise in glory.