PCC Blog: 10

Be prepared

Baden Powell’s motto for the scout movement is not one we would disagree with as we start to think about the easing of restrictions made necessary by the coronavirus. But be prepared for what? What will the new landscape look like for policing and criminal justice?

There is already some return to business as usual. Those crimes that fell away during the early days of the lock-down – such as burglaries and car theft – have begun to creep back to ‘normal’ levels. And although domestic abuse incidents did not rise at first, we are now beginning to see that much was hidden – literally behind locked doors – but will now be more fully revealed. The police and all the agencies will have to be on full alert.

But can we see other trends emerging? Yes, we can. For example, although many of the organised crime gangs were disrupted over the last few months, the contest for control of the drugs markets has never gone away and may now become more intense. If so, we could see serious violence on the streets again, unless the police can be even more pro-active. ‘Be prepared’ means giving this a new priority going forward. (Fortunately, we have £1.6m of funding available this year – so-called ‘Surge’ funding – to do some focused work.)

But in addition, there are things that were done out of necessity over this past period that we may want to see continued. We have seen the courts nationwide make increased use of video links. Also, some forces have begun to allow victims of crime to use police Body Worn Cameras to record their Victim Personal Statements rather than have them attend court. This was done in order to reduce footfall in courts where social distancing is an issue. But it might be a practice worth examining.

Many police staff, as well as people in my office, have appreciated the chance of spending more time at home. They have ‘saved’ time by not having to travel. They have seen more of their children. They have got a lot of work done!  (They have not enjoyed the increased email traffic which has often taken the place of the informal chats of the office.) On the other hand they – we – have come to realise what we have lost – the routines, the clear beginning and end to the day, the little bits of information you pick up in casual conversations, the importance of moving away from the screen, the mutual support, and so on. We have been made to think about what a good work-life balance might look like.

Be prepared can be understood in a passive way – normality is returning so get ready for it – or in a more pro-active sense – shape the future, don’t just let things slip back to what they were before. It is more in that sense that we should be prepared.

Short term memory loss

Our corporate as well as our individual memories can be very short lived. I had an exchange with a young colleague last week who was concerned about racism. He recalled the time in the 1980s (before he was born) when I was deputy leader of Sheffield City Council and David Blunkett was leader. He asked what we had done then for the cause of anti-racism. I told him that the really big issue at that time was apartheid in South Africa, and our contribution was to be one of 20 or so councils who refused to buy South African products and who welcomed speakers from the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela’s party. Mandela was at that time in prison and the cause of the anti-apartheid movement at times seemed pretty hopeless.

We invited one of the founders of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, exiled in the UK, to speak at a council meeting. He gave a moving and gracious speech at the end of which he thanked the council for their support and said that when the new South Africa came to be built, one of the foundation stones would have the words ‘Sheffield City Council’ written on it. He then walked across to the Lord Mayor, a woman councillor, and embraced her.

Ten years or so after his speech, Oliver Tambo became Chair of the ANC and Nelson Mandela went on to become South Africa’s first black president and the most admired statesman in the world.

I would call that significant progress; and knowing that such change is possible, that even the most hardened of hearts can be turned, should encourage us to work for further progress in this country in these later times.

Lost words

Shortly after this exchange, I heard another young person say on television that nothing is taught in school about slavery. I find this hard to believe, but it made me go back to the history book I had as a child in primary school. I was 9 or 10 when I read this (and remember reading it):

For many years, people had been in the habit of stealing black people from their homes in Africa and selling them as slaves in the colonies. People had grown so used to it that they did not see how wicked and cruel this was….  (Slaves) had no rights whatsoever; their children might be taken from them and sold; sometimes even husbands and wives were sold to different masters, and never saw each other again. A master might treat his slaves as badly as he chose, and no one could punish him… (Slaves) were viewed as only made for work and suffering, and nothing was thought about it.

H.E.Marshall, Our Island Story: A History of Britain for Boys and Girls from the Romans to Queen Victoria, first published in 1905.

Have we really not been talking about Britain’s part in the slave trade in schools more recently?

What they did in the seventeenth century and what we don’t do now

As a former vicar I have been dismayed that the bishops gave in to the politicians and ordered churches to be closed during this time when, arguably, places of worship could have been made places of sanctuary and consolation for some distressed people. I was even more dismayed that clergy were prevented from visiting their flock. The Book of Common Prayer (1662) has this rubric for the priest taking the sacrament to the sick:

In the time of the Plague, Sweat, or such other like contagious times of sickness or diseases, when none of the Parish or neighbours can be gotten to communicate with the sick in their houses, for fear of infection, upon special request of the diseased, the Minister may only communicate with him.

Times have changed; along, it seems, with job descriptions.

I hope you are staying safe and well.