Last week a Roads Police officer showed me a very scary video.
He and his colleagues had been out along South Yorkshire’s motorways in a tall vehicle – like the front of an articulated lorry. It had been borrowed for a few days from Highways England. The vehicle had cameras on each side and an officer in the cab holding another. They had been recording instances of dangerous driving: the videos would be very compelling evidence for any action they subsequently might take. The advantage of this vehicle from an enforcement point of view was that it lifted up the officers so that they could see clearly into cabs of a similar height and they could look down into cars and small vans.
In the video I saw, the police were travelling behind a car on the inside lane of the motorway. The car swayed somewhat and, as the police started to overtake, it came very close. I assumed we were watching someone under the influence of drink or drugs. When the police drew alongside the car they could film what was happening. A young woman was driving at speed while texting on her mobile phone. She was barely in control and was quite oblivious to everything going on around her, including the police officer with the camera.
When the woman was stopped, she at first denied texting – until she was confronted with the filmed evidence. Then she wanted the police to deal leniently with her because she already had points and could lose her licence; and her job was dependent on being able to drive.
I was left wondering. If the prospect of losing your licence, your livelihood and your life was not enough to persuade someone to drive responsibly, what was?
Last week I was out and about in Rotherham District again – to Rawmarsh and Main Street police stations, talking to neighbourhood teams – and with councillors and members of the community at a socially distanced outdoor surgery in East Herringthorpe – beside Gilberts Grocers. What is becoming very clear as I speak with members of the public is that unrealistic expectations are being raised by talk of 20,000 extra police officers. This is happening in two ways.
First, people think this means that every one of those additional 20,000 are destined to be neighbourhood officers in high visibility jackets standing on the corner of every street. There is no understanding that every department of policing was run down and needs re-building – from detectives to roads police. Many of these officers will not be in neighbourhoods and some – like the detectives – won’t even be in uniform. But that is not the expectation that is being built.
And the second expectation is that crime will start to fall rapidly. In the public mind, more officers mean fewer crimes. Of course, we must hope that over time, more officers will lead to fewer crimes – if the police can work with partners to prevent people being drawn into crime in the first place. But in the meantime, more officers will mean that more crimes will be recorded. Recorded crime is likely to go up – just as it goes up whenever the police have a day of action and many arrests are made and prosecutions brought.
And there are some crime statistics that we want to see going up: we want more people brought to justice for serious sexual offences, for example, where too often people are reluctant to come forward.
So as we welcome the increasing numbers of police officers we also need to manage expectations around that. We have to get the messages right, nationally and locally.
Firing the imagination
For a few days we have had a young intern in the office. He is a student of politics about to go into his final year at university. He wanted to understand something about what was involved in being a Police and Crime Commissioner. It is one thing to read about the governance of our country, another to see the practice of politics – and PCCs are elected. I hope we have helped him with that. But what struck me in talking to him, was how coming to our office had opened his eyes to the range of jobs that people do in the police service, particularly when you include police staff, and how very interesting they are. Like any big organisation, the police need people to work in finance, HR and IT. They need analysts and lawyers, people who know about buildings and vehicles. We could go on.
All of which presents a challenge. How do we convey all of this to those young people who, like our intern, are on the cusp of making decisions about their future careers? The vast majority have no idea what people who work for South Yorkshire Police do. And potentially enquiring minds are closed down if the only debate we have is about police numbers and yellow vests on street corners.
Back to school
In theory, SYP have a Youth Engagement Officer for every secondary school in the county. At least that is what they tell me. But it became very clear at a recent Public Accountability Board meeting that this is patchy at best – or, perhaps we could say, underdeveloped. Yet if we are to help the next generation of young people have a better understanding of the police, and for them to see the police as approachable and on their side, having such officers in place as part of the neighbourhood function seems an obvious thing to do.
As the restrictions are lifted, it’s time to go back to school.
Last year, on 18 May I wrote this in Blog 5:
The number of people in the NHS who could be awarded an honour following Covid-19 must be immense – from consultants to cleaners. The system risks either being overwhelmed or failing to do justice to all the deserving. As well as singling out some, we need something else. In 1942 King George VI awarded the George Cross to the Isle of Malta, then part of the British Empire, for the collective heroism the Maltese people had shown in the face of the Nazi enemy. The medal appears on the Maltese flag. We need a collective honour for the NHS, a permanent reminder in the years to come of what they did for us.
Which raises an interesting question: Who is reading these Blogs?