People often tell me what, in their view, the police are for.
They do this directly: ‘We want the police to catch the bad guys and lock them up.’ They also do it indirectly: ‘We want to see more high visibility jackets in our streets.’ I hear this wherever I go – in towns or villages, in the inner city and in the suburbs. This is what the public believe the police are for. It’s about crime and anti-social behaviour.
Sometimes, as people say this, I compare it mentally with what the police actually do.
I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t catch the bad guys or realise the importance of being seen in a variety of settings. But there is often a mismatch between the public’s idea of what the police are for and what the police have to do, day to day.
One way of thinking about this is to envisage two concentric circles, a big one and within that a smaller one. The big circle represents the totality of what the police do and the smaller what many of the public think the police should do – what they are for – which is only part of what they do.
The bigger circle includes such things as: finding missing children and bringing them back to a children’s home; helping someone who is having a mental health episode in the town centre; maintaining law and order in the streets around a football ground; talking to pensioner groups about protecting themselves from cyber fraud; going into schools and speaking to children about the dangers of carrying knives … and so on.
When I explain to groups how much time these ‘non-crime’ matters or ‘incidents’ probably take up, some people can become quite agitated and even angry. ‘We don’t pay the police to be social workers’, is a common reaction when I talk about the police having to deal with missing persons or those with mental health issues.
There may be some unreality behind these remarks – the police could not refuse to find an elderly dementia sufferer who has not come home. But there is also a sober recognition that resources are limited and therefore every hour that an officer spends dealing with incidents and non-crime matters is an hour that is not being given to investigating crime.
These reactions are concerning when the non-crime area of policing is growing, not least because other parts of the public sector have been slowly declining or cannot cope. At one time, for example, a children’s home would have been in the public sector with more generous staffing and a staff member would take themselves into town to find the missing teenager on a Friday night. But in today’s private homes there are too few on duty to do that now.
All of this matters – for two reasons. First, the growth of demand which is not crime is growing and there is no way the police can refuse to respond. The teenager who has missed an 11pm deadline will have to be found and brought back safely however time-consuming and resource-intensive it will be. But also, each year I have to determine what the precept (council tax) should be for policing. If I raise it, I have to give good reasons, and for many people, spending more time on non-crime matters is not a good reason.
There has to be an expansion of the public understanding of what the police do and a greater willingness to see this as what the modern police force is for. Otherwise we are on a journey to endless frustration however many new officers we have.
Cannabis cultivation and power cuts
You may not see the connection between cannabis growing and the lights going out, but for people living in Hexthorpe, Doncaster, they have understood this very well in recent months. I’ll explain.
Last week I was in the area with Mayor Ros Jones, the local councillors, Sophie Liu and Glyn Jones, the police and local authority officers. We were looking at some recently installed CCTV that we had funded from a Safer Streets grant.
Then, by chance, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of an unscheduled police operation, knocking in front doors of several houses in one street and finding cannabis being grown in various rooms in each property. It started with one house, but intelligence gained from the occupant in one had soon led to three houses being discovered.
The rooms looked like industrial workshops – with overhead cables, extractor fans and lamps projecting heat and light down towards pots of cannabis plants in every room – twenty or so pots per room with street values of about £1,000 per plant. The electricity by-passed meters and was taken directly from the main supply cables. It was ‘very sophisticated’ the engineer from Northern Power said. ‘They knew what they were doing.’ But very dangerous. And that was the link between the cannabis growing and the lights going out, because what had alerted the police to the area in the first place were the power cuts triggered by this intensive cannabis cultivation and the over-loading of the electricity supply.
Residents are often scared to report what they suspect may be happening in their street. If they don’t report, however, the price may be an inconvenient power cut. But it could easily be worse. The risk of a fire and the risk of other gangs, looking for cannabis plants, breaking into the wrong address is considerable and has happened.
This was a good result and the installation now of more sophisticated CCTV may make it easier in the future to capture the evidence needed to identify, catch, prosecute and convict those who are blighting parts of our towns. I think the Mayor, who quite rightly gives me a hard time if she thinks that Doncaster is not getting its fair share of police resources, was probably impressed on this occasion.
And finally …
One of my PCC colleagues said in an interview last week that his greatest asset was his sense of humour. I think that was the funniest thing I ever remembering him saying. But perhaps irony is his really strong point.
Stay safe and well