PCC Blog 68

On Friday last week I was out and about with Dame Sarah Storey.

Well, I was more out than about in that I didn’t take a bicycle along as she did. She had come to support South Yorkshire police as they contributed to Project EDWARD. This is a national attempt to raise consciousness around road safety and to try to move us to the point where we might have days without fatalities on our roads – Every Day Without A Road Death. In September they have days of action.

The police operation that Dame Sarah took part in centred on the A57, a major route from Sheffield to Manchester. Sarah and two police officers in ordinary clothes cycled a few miles from Rivelin Valley Road, recording the behaviour of passing motorists on cameras mounted on their bikes. Those who passed very close or drove dangerously were reported ahead and pulled in by police officers. The officers explained why they had been stopped and how they needed to improve their driving when approaching or overtaking cyclists. It was educational rather than enforcement action, though vehicles were checked for tax, insurance and general roadworthiness.

In the morning I had watched a similar exercise towards Bradfield in the Loxley valley, though this time the issue was motorist behaviour when passing horses. Two mounted officers in civilian clothes took part.

What was noticeable in both instances was the very different attitudes drivers adopted. Some immediately accepted that they had been rather thoughtless and readily took instruction and advice. They were kept for little more than ten minutes. But others started to argue and posture – which probably doubled the time they were detained.

So many thanks to Dame Sarah who, despite an extraordinarily busy schedule since her astonishing wins at the Tokyo Paralympics, still found time to support the EDWARD initiative in South Yorkshire. For the motorists who were told they had just carelessly passed Dame Sarah Storey, it was a lesson about the safety of other road users they are unlikely to forget.

Doncaster Duxford

On Wednesday last week I was up at six to be in Doncaster for Operation Duxford. These operations happen from time to time in different districts and this month it was the turn of Doncaster. Officers were briefed near College Road police station and the Mayor, Ros Jones, popped along to see us.

Duxford brings together a very large number of officers – in this case over 100 – from different teams from across the organisation and across the county. It offers the district a chance to perform many tasks that otherwise might take longer to achieve – or there might be no resources to do them at all. Some of this is about enforcement – executing warrants, making arrests, closing down cannabis growing sites, catching speeding motorists – some is about engagement – talking to people in different communities –  and some is re-assurance – high visibility patrolling.

I walked the centre with a Police Community Support Officer – and, of course, learnt more in that time about how the centre works than I would with any number of reports. This was mainly about re-assurance for shopkeepers and shoppers, though we did come across one man who had spent the night in a shop front minus his trousers which had been stolen from him. Clothing was secured through a charity.

At the time of writing this, based on intelligence, six warrants for drug dealing and growing were executed. Five properties were found to be growing cannabis, 370 plants were seized with a street value of £370,000. Weapons and cash were found and six people arrested. There were fourteen arrests for other crimes and seven drivers had their vehicles seized for various motoring offences.

One day of intense activity does not solve all the problems of the district. But it does send messages to criminals that the police are on to them and to communities that the police are on the job. And a great deal of intelligence is gathered for another day.

Unmanned Ariel Vehicles

In the year I became PCC I published a paperback on the two thousand year history of Christian attitudes to war.* In the final chapter, I speculated on the way Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs) – now universally known as drones – might alter the nature of warfare. I assumed that drones would be used increasingly by the military and so we needed to think through the ethical issues they posed. For instance, using GPS (global positioning system) it was possible to direct an armed drone with great precision from a base in the USA or UK (RAF Waddington) to targets anywhere in the world.

The ethical issues were around the extraordinary degree of unobserved surveillance capability drones opened up and the ability they gave to strike targets without putting your own soldiers at risk. Fighting could become a desk job. Did this make it easier for politicians to see force rather than negotiation as the preferred option in situations of conflict?

What I did not anticipate was that some of the same ethical issues would be posed for police forces – though not around lethal force!

Yet over these past few years, the use of drones by the police has increased exponentially. I am not sure when the first drone was acquired by South Yorkshire police, but I do recall an early discussion about sharing one with the Fire and Rescue Service – who were using a drone to get an aerial view of burning buildings.

South Yorkshire police currently have 36 qualified Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approved drone pilots. They are a mix of officers and staff and they all have other roles. There are 11 operational aircraft and 4 training aircraft. Each of these has different capabilities and flying times, giving the police a range of options when it comes to deployment.

In 2019/20 there were 1000 operational flights, but in 2020/21 this had increased by 40% to 1400, and this year there is already 30% growth.

The type of incidents when a drone is deployed varies considerably – from area searches, when people go missing, to the management of a serious road traffic collision. A scene can be relayed to senior managers in the police and other emergency services, and viewed in real time.

Most people would probably accept that this use of drones poses no particular ethical issues for us. But as with much new technology, it raises other possibilities, especially around surveillance, and they do need careful thought. For instance, a drone has tremendous capability to observe and watch citizens without their being aware of it. Individuals may be captured not only unawares but also by chance. There could be ‘operational creep’ – going beyond what might be considered ethical and reasonable. And without good management, operators could corruptly use a drone for their own purposes.

When I was looking at drones in a military context, people were already talking about semi-autonomous or ‘thinking’ UAVs, drones that would make autonomous decisions about whether to use lethal force or not: the UAV would decide whether the target it was ‘seeing’ was a combatant or a civilian – tricky decisions in the context of urban conflicts.

I am glad to say we have in South Yorkshire an ethics panel who consider for us such matters in a policing context, and one member who specialises in these issues in her professional life. But drones are just one example of the way technology moves on and we have to keep alert to any ethical implications.

* The Dove, the Fig Leaf and the Sword (SPCK, 2014).

Stay safe and well.