PCC Blog 174

When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold.

That has been a mantra of economists ever since the Wall Street Crash of 1929. European economies, including our own, are inevitably affected by what happens to the American.

Something similar can be said when things happen on the Arab street in the Middle East. If there are protests in Ramallah or East Jerusalem, it will have consequences for us as well: there will be matching pro-Palestinian demonstrations here. This is because there are those in this country who are Palestinian or of Palestinian heritage, or who have sympathy with their cause.

As part of my holding to account responsibility, I spent some time recently seeing how South Yorkshire police prepared for local demonstrations and protests, something the public might never think about. The assumption most people make is probably that there will always be a roomful of police officers somewhere who can simply be called upon if there is a protest and who will know exactly what they have to do. The idea would be that all protests are much of a muchness and the police would not have to think about varying their tactics or approach: they just do what they have done before.

This is far from the reality. The police first need good intelligence. If the organisers of a protest have not already made contact, the police will need to know – from social media or local police – where and when a protest is planned. If a march is proposed, the police will want to agree a route – for the safety of both protestors and public. Some protests and demonstrations will have their own stewards and are well managed; some not. Public safety is always paramount.

Then there are judgements to be made about the number of officers needed, where they should be positioned and how many held in reserve – in case. This in part depends on the best estimate for the number turning out for the demonstration and how peaceful they are likely to remain. All these decisions require officers with some experience.

I looked at the briefing which officers were given for the recent pro-Palestinian protests. It ran to several pages. It set out the law: protests are lawful but there may be public order offences or others – hate crimes, for example – that break the law and officers need to be clear about this. If an arrest is to be made the arresting officer needs clarity as to which law he or she is relying on.

The briefing also explained in some detail what the issues are that have led to the protest and where particular sensitivities were likely to be. It gave illustrations of various flags and symbols so that the Palestinian flag could be distinguished from those of proscribed terrorist organisations such as Hamas or Hezbollah. It is unlawful to display the flags and symbols of proscribed organisations and unlawful to promote their causes with slogans or chants; and the police should enforce the law.

I also have standing by to assist me an Independent Advisory Panel for Policing Protests. This consists of a group of people, partly drawn from my Independent Ethics Panel, chaired by a lawyer. If I fear that a particular protest may prove controversial, they will speak to the police in advance, observe on the day and report back to me on what they have found. I set up this Panel some years ago when the far-right English Defence League was marching and holding protest meetings regularly in Rotherham following the CSE scandals. I also used the Panel more recently to observe the protests against tree felling in Sheffield.

Policing a protest is never going to be an exact science. This is why we need senior officers who have a sound grasp of the law relating to public order and to protests and also some experience of policing demonstrations of all kinds. My task is to ensure, on behalf of the public, that lawful protest can take place, public safety is assured and the law is upheld.

Dogged determination

 I met last week with Assistant Chief Constable Dan Thorpe and Chief Inspector Emma Cheney, and two of our MPs, Nick Fletcher (Conservative, Don Valley) and Ed Miliband (Labour, Doncaster North). They have both shown a particular interest in the issue of dangerous dogs and we wanted to bring them up to date with the latest information we have for South Yorkshire. The MPs wanted to prepare themselves on the issues for debates that will be taking place in the next month or so in Parliament.

The Prime Minister has promised legislation to ban XL Bullys which have caused such terrible injuries to people across South Yorkshire and nationally. (It seems there may be as many as 50,000 of this type of dog in the country.) The  officers were clear that we need to heed what people who had to deal with them are saying. ‘I would prefer to tackle someone with a knife than an XL Bully’, was how one police officer put it. XL Bullys have been so dangerous that it has required armed response teams to intervene.

Although XL Bullys are disproportionately represented in the figures for dangerous dogs, and some of the injuries they inflict are among the most serious, our conversation was also about aggressive dogs more generally. In the twelve months between October 2022 and October 2023, seven dogs had to be dispatched, six because they were completely out of control. This is not something police officers take any pleasure in. You can visual the scene and understand why.

South Yorkshire Police (SYP) are now being called to an average of 200 incidents involving dogs every month. 80 of these are dangerously out of control animals with  50-60 being seized. The attacks are mainly happening in the home and involve babies and children as well as adults. The photographs of the injuries are in some cases too graphic to show or even describe. They include injuries to the face and scalp. But dogs also attack visitors, postal workers and those making deliveries. They can be aggressive towards people and other dogs in public places. The true scale of the problem is unknown because many of the incidents are not required to be reported to the Home Office.

It is a growing problem, and there is a rising cost. For SYP, the cost of kennelling dogs until their future was decided, was £96,000 in the financial year2018-2019. By 2021-2022 it had reached £178,000. But last year, 2022-2023, it was £535,000. This was half a million pounds that came from the SYP budget and was not available, therefore, for fighting crime or anti-social behaviour.

What has caused this rise in aggressive dogs?

I think the best explanation is that these are the animals, often, like the XL Bullys, with fighting breeds in their genes, that were bought as puppies during the lockdowns and were, as a consequence, never socialised with other dogs or other people. Now they are mature dogs – and don’t know how to behave. But whatever the explanation, SYP, the MPs and I are determined to do what we can to save as many as we can from aggressive dogs, and to ensure the police budget is spent on fighting crime.

An unforeseen consequence

Sometimes a perfectly truthful narrative can have an unforeseen and potentially unhelpful consequence.

The government (and police forces and police and crime commissioners) are rightly pleased that police officer numbers have been restored to more or less where they were in 2010 and perhaps even beyond that figure. Government ministers rarely lose the opportunity of reminding us that we now have an extra 20,000 police officers nationwide – the so-called ‘Uplift’. (Our share in South Yorkshire has been just over 500.)

This is true and to be welcomed. But an unforeseen and unintended consequence is that when it is stated baldly like that – ‘there are 20,000 more police’ – the public have assumed that all those officers are (a) trained and operationally fully competent, and (b) are all destined to be in yellow jackets on a street near them.

This is highly misleading. Most of those officers are even now being trained and will not be fully ready for some years yet. But as I go around community meetings it is clear that people have no concept of a time of training between recruitment and full deployment, and the impression given is that they are all destined to be ‘bobbies on the beat’.

The national narrative needs qualifying quickly and repeatedly, otherwise we shall have stoked up unreal public expectations that can only come crashing down.

Stay safe