Thursday 27 July 2017

Stop & Search or Stab & Bury?

I was given the opportunity to appear in a live studio debate on Knife Crime during the Channel 4 evening news programme on 27th July 2017.  They said it would be 7 or 8 minutes - a really long slot for TV news. I readily accepted, volunteering to waive the usual fee because it is a subject so important that I wanted the chance to explain some important points.

In the event, I met Sheldon Thomas and in the green room before we had a good chat; I think we were both surprised by how much we agreed upon.  The actual televised debate was, though, frustrating for me as there was a lady on the line from Birmingham whose contributions were so long that I got less than a minute to speak.  I had done quite a bit of preparation and yet was only able really to make one of the points I had up my sleeve - so I thought I would write this so as at least some people will get the chance to read what I wanted to have said:-

There is no doubt that enforcement is not the only way of tackling this scourge. Education, societal changes, family support all have an important role.  But they generally need funding which is not available and in any case are long-term solutions which, even if successful, will not address the acute problem we are facing.  So other tactics are needed to stop the carnage while the long-term action takes effect.  Re-education alone will never be enough.

An analogy can be found in drink-driving.  We accepted very nearly 50 years ago that it was a problem, it caused death and serious injury and we should try to reduce or eradicate it.  Re-education has, to a large degree, worked - it is seen now by most people as wrong, not just legally but socially.  However, at no time during the campaign to re-educate has enforcement of the law stopped; indeed, when the re-education campaign is stepped up so too, often, is the rate of enforcement.  Every Christmas most police forces mount additional anti-drink driving enforcement campaigns to coincide with the re-education / public information campaigns run seemingly annually by central Government.  And it works.

If it is accepted that reduction of dangerous, illegal and anti-social behaviour needs to be addressed by enforcement as well as education then it leads us, in the case of knife crime, to just one tactic - stop and search.  What other way is there - the ill we are trying to prevent is the carrying of knives in public places?  Since many knives are easily concealable on the person then detecting their possession on the streets can only be achieved by stop and search - there is no other practical and effective way.  This is why one of the few points I was able to make on C4 News is so important:

In the context of knife crime the phrase 'Stop and search' means enforcement of the anti-knife laws.  So when the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London said they aim to reduce Stop and Search they might as well have said they aim to reduce the enforcement of anti-knife laws - because that is exactly what their pronouncements mean.

Would increased enforcement reduce stabbing?  Well, I disagreed with Sheldon Thomas when he said there is no correlation (but never got a chance to say so).  All the information I have seen shows that as Stop and Search has decreased since 2010 so stabbings have increased.   The intuitive correlation which seems sensible and logical is borne out by the numbers. So the next question to be addressed is why Stop and Search has declined.

Like so many features of 21st-century life in the UK, difficult issues can be clouded by awkwardness whenever race is - or is perceived to be - a factor.  Not only does it stifle debate but it also causes many to adopt deeply entrenched positions which skews objective thinking.  My view is that knife crime is an issue for all of society, it is a criminal problem not a racial problem.  Sheldon made a very valid point to me while we were chatting - criminal gangs are the ultimate equal opportunity employers, they really don't care who you are so long as they can trust you and you get the job done.  Equally therefore we can assume that they are similarly non-discriminatory about who they choose to stab - gang-related violence is just that, not a hate crime, not racially-motivated, just gangsterism plain and simple.  Interesting though wasn't it that Channel 4 news chose two black contributors to take part in the debate.  Do they, even subconsciously, support the proposition that it is a black problem?

But, and it is a big but, there is an obvious perception that Stop and Search is a tactic which has been abused to the disadvantage of the black community.  I understand this and I am neither so naive nor so blinkered as to refute this out of hand.  I don't believe abuse of the power is anything like as widespread as some suggest but equally am sure that it happens.  I tried to get some idea of how often by a little research.  My starting point was that if unlawful Stop and Search happened there would be no shortage of lawyers willing to take cases to court and thereafter no shortage of journalists happy to tell us all about it.  In the event it seems difficult to find reports of more than a handful of cases.  It is probably an area which merits greater and proper research - if anyone knows of where I can find some then I'd be grateful for a signpost.

One must assume that the motivation for politicians to pledge to reduce Stop and Search is to reduce or eliminate the friction between communities and the police caused by the tactic.  I understand and recognise the aim.  It is a reasonable position to take but like many difficult choices it requires a compromise, one which becomes stark and almost insoluble when you replace the words 'Stop and Search' with 'enforcing anti-knife laws'.  Because then the question is do we reduce the friction and aim for better relationships between police and communities and accept that, as a result, some of the young members of those communities will suffer wounding or death, or do we try to reduce the carrying and use of knives and accept that, as a result, some members of the communities will feel resentment towards the police and that they are being unfairly targeted?  I go for the latter, my simple reason being that at least they will be alive and have the opportunity to feel resentment.

Due to the focus of my police career I spent many more hours talking to parents and friends of stabbing victims than I did to people alleging unfair treatment, so perhaps I have the bias of my experiences to contend with.  What I know for sure is that every one of those mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers would have given anything for the stabber to have been stopped and searched before he got to their loved one.

Sadly, it is now not just a question of an edict from on high going out to say - "Enforce the knife laws".  Stop and search requires not only the political will and leadership to make it happen, it requires officers to do it.  The first word I said on C4 news, replying to the question "what does it need?" was "Money".  By that I meant public money, to fund the diversion schemes, the family support, the re-education programmes which are needed - but also, to deal with the acute crisis, to fund policing in a way which allows enforcement.  Even if police were not discouraged by their leaders from using their powers to stop and search they need to find the time for it.  Patrolling officers are now far fewer in number than they were even five years ago; half as many as I knew when I was last a uniform officer in 1992.  And yet the demands upon them have soared.  Those that remain blue light from call to call almost constantly.  They now have to spend much time getting to their patch from distant patrol bases and then travelling to and from distant custody centres if they arrest (both new wastes of their time caused by the need to sell off valuable police stations to deal with decreased budgets). Then there is the time they spend dealing with increased bureaucracy and in dealing with the gaps caused by the reduced operational hours of other agengies dealing with mental health, social work and housing (cuts hitting home again) and they simply do not have the time for much proactivity. It is amazing really that they manage to find the knives they do.

Reinstating enforcement of anti-knife laws is hardly a knee-jerk.  It needs no new legislation, no greater powers, no longer sentences.  The law is all in place - the offence of carrying the knife since 1953 and the power to search since 1986.  It simply needs the will to use existing legislation and the numbers to do it.  What would help would be a significant number of the most vocal in the community to accept that more Stop and Search is preferable to more Stab and Bury.  Would it work in the short-term?  I think yes.  How many people deliberately carry a knife if they are about to board a flight, or to enter a court building?  Very very few, because they know they will be searched and they will at best have it confiscated and at worse find themselves arrested.  Our aim should be that the likelihood of your knife being discovered on the High Street is also so great that the risk isn't worth it.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

My advice

There is lots of reflection on policing and police at the moment so I thought it might be time to share the email I wrote to my son a few years ago as he embarked on his police career:

As you become the fourth in five generations to join the Met, these are slightly updated versions of the rules I was given by my own father and his colleagues in 1981, with one or two additions from my experience.  

 I am proud you have made this choice to serve, entirely of your own volition. Keep safe, watch your back and watch out for your colleagues.  In every sense of the phrase. 

I hope you will grow as a man and as a human being to the same extent that I did in The Job. And have as much fun, so that, whenever you finish your time, just like me you will be satisfied that you have done some good and wish you could do it all over again. 

You will see and hear the phrase TJF. The Job's F***ed.  By my standards of 1981 it is, but by my Dad's standards of 1956 it was when I joined. If you could go back over each generation all would say the same.  But you must take as you find - and you will probably just  find that, compared to what we knew, TJD - The Job's Different.

 Anyway, the rules: 

RULE 1 - THE GOLDEN, UNBREAKABLE IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, RULE.  You have a warrant card in your pocket. It was hard work getting it.  You only ever give it up when you are ready to, so everything you do on or off duty has to be incapable of allowing anybody to take it from you. 

Rule 2 - Your warrant card sets you apart.  It gives you power but also imposes duties. You act as necessary in circumstances where most people do nothing. Be proud of that. 

Rule 3 - You are joining a new family.  It is a large one with members across the country and indeed the world.  Like all families, there are falling outs.  Some members will irritate you, upset you and occasionally let you down.  You will have to learn which ones you trust and which you can't.  But also like all families, when the chips are down they are there for each other. They will be for you and you for them - always bearing in mind Rule 1. 

Rule 4 - Take each and every training opportunity offered to you. You never know when having that skill will make the difference between getting to do something you really need to, or being somewhere you really want to be.   

Rule 5  - You must be respectful to rank and seniority - despite the best efforts of some, it is still a disciplined service.  But it is entirely possible to be questioning in a respectful manner. Decent senior officers will show respect back to a junior who politely but reasonably argues their corner. Even if they disagree and you lose. 

Rule 6 - Aspiration to roles and ranks is fine, but the whole organisation works best when everybody at every level does their best. The pride is in being an officer, whatever the rank or role you hold. You will find your niche one day, it might take two years it might take twenty. Nobody has anything but respect for somebody who finds it and stays, excelling in it - no matter what they wear on their shoulder. It isn't a competition with your friends (or family!) 

Rule 7 - You will see the best and worst of human nature.  You will see sadness and joy.  You will go places and see things that most people will never be aware exist, let alone witness.  Keep smiling if you can, if not then talk about it. 

Rule 8 - Cock ups are understandable, covering them up isn't.  Put another way, to err is human, to hide it is criminal. See Rule 1. 

Rule 9 - 
You see policing every day, the member of the public you talk to might experience it once a decade. Make sure they tell their friends how good it was.

Rule 10 - 
The unofficial Met mantra must always be borne in mind - "If you can't take a joke you shouldn't join the Job".

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Madeleine McCann and Operation Grange

At the outset I should say that I don't know what happened to Madeleine McCann.  All the evidence available to me – and there is more and deeper information available to the public on this than any case I have looked at – does not convince me of any theory or scenario being proved.  Soon, in the coming months when my other projects are less busy, I hope to take a proper analytical look at it all and come up with some conclusions.  But as things stand my position is that I don't know.

Having said all that, there are aspects of the case which trouble me already and the main one is what the Metropolitan Police set out to do in Operation Grange.  My brush with that investigation – and I call it that because I was never actually involved with it – has been the subject of a fair bit of comment, embellishment and misunderstanding.  So it is right I think that I set out clearly what happened and what did not.

On Sunday 9th May 2010 the News of the World published a story which suggested that the Met was going to reinvestigate Madeleine’s disappearance and that I would be asked to lead it.  This was news to me on both counts. Nobody from the Met had, or indeed ever did, make such a request of me.

The only official news I heard about the reinvestigation was a week or two later when I heard that the idea of such a reinvestigation had been shelved for the time being in the wake of the change of Government. You will recall the note by former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne, apologising to his successor that there was no money left. The rumour in the Met was that, unless and until the Government were prepared to fund it, we would not undertake such an expensive operation which, as desirable as it might have been, was not really something on which Londoners should see their Council Tax spent.

However, before this, just a few days after the NotW story I did receive a call from a senior officer in the Met whom I knew quite well.  This officer told me I would do better to avoid the McCann investigation if it did happen, because "You wouldn't be happy leading an investigation where you were told what you could look at and what you could not".

That is the totality of the advice I received. It was made clear that this was an ‘unofficial’ call and that it was made in my interest – so that I might not end up taking on a task which would ultimately frustrate me.  As such I never pressed the caller for more information, nor will I ever be in a position to disclose who the officer was.

I was familiar enough with the reporting of the McCann case in the media to understand that there was a widespread reluctance to talk of any scenario which did not involve an abduction and in which no blame or complicity was to be attributed to the parents and their friends.  This struck me as odd but, in those days, quite frankly I was busy enough with he investigations I was involved in without undertaking any 'off the books' look at what had gone on in Praia de Luz.  I had assumed that there was good reason for this; that those who had been involved had satisfied themselves that was the case.

I retired after 30 years service in early 2011.  At the time I retired there had been no decision made to mount the Met operation.  As I embarked upon a new career writing and commenting I looked at the case a little, sufficiently enough to provide sensible assistance to the media when they asked me.  This was, though, always around police procedures and techniques.  Nobody ever asked me what I thought might have happened, only what the police were doing, why and what they might do next.

Last year Sky asked me to a meeting to discuss what a ten-year anniversary film might achieve.  I explained that I would be willing to take part but that my position was one where I was as sceptical of the accepted (abduction) theory as I was of any other. I said I would also like to make the point that Operation Grange was so restricted from the start as to be destined to fail.  In support of this I presented the original Grange terms of reference and told them of the advice I had received in the phone call.

To their credit (and, actually, to my surprise) they accepted that this was a valid point of view to hold and one which should be presented in their film.  Within the limitations and constraints of legal matters, the editing process and the need to present a rounded story, I think the Sky film was pretty good.  It is certainly the most balanced mainstream report I have seen and one with which I am entirely happy to be associated.  I also think it represented my views well.

I am neither an anti nor a pro – of the McCanns or the media or the police.  I felt, feel indeed, that the limitations which seem to have been imposed on Operation Grange were worthy of being publicised and would inform the debate.  I am not necessarily advocating that it be started afresh, just that it is understood what it was and what it tried to do.

I do though think that a point worthy of reinforcing is that a proper, conclusive and reasoned elimination or implication of Kate and Gerry McCann would have been in everyone's interest, most of all theirs.  That would have been my first objective had I been leading Operation Grange and so that is the biggest issue I have with how that investigation proceeded.  To eliminate or implicate those closest to the child in this type of case is not only the documented best investigative practice but is common sense.  Had Grange done this then everything would be a lot clearer. I have no idea why this was not done but I am satisfied on what has been said by the Met and what is available that it was not.

I want to continue to raise and discuss issues around Madeleine’s disappearance when it is appropriate to do so.  I am mindful that, to maintain credibility and access to meaningful platforms that I will need to do so in a considered, reasoned and evidenced way. If I don't offer support to theories and assumptions it doesn't mean I don't understand or believe them, just that I don't think it is appropriate to adopt them or comment upon them at the moment.

Finally a paragraph on me. I am nowhere near na├»ve enough to have thought that I could become involved in this debate without suffering some abuse and denigration. While it is water from a duck’s back I won't expose myself to it unnecessarily.  Hence I won't take part in discussions on the various forums and I am likely to block those on Twitter who can’t be reasonable and polite.  Like us all I am far from perfect but I did give many years of service to the community – as do thousands of others – and during that time I was lucky enough to achieve some results of which I will always be proud. My expertise and reputation is well-regarded by the media and I have no need to raise my profile; I turn away as much media work as I accept.  I am not writing a book on Madeleine McCann and I have no motivation other than that which has been with me for many, many years – to get to the truth.  So I will continue to tweet about the case ( @colinsutton ) and when people raise good questions I will try to respond quickly.

Sunday 1 November 2015

A right old Poppy Show?

I have hinted a few times on Twitter and Facebook that I think Chief Police Officers are crying wolf a little bit about the cuts they face.  Not that the cuts aren’t real, or savage, or deep.  Just that, in order to emphasise their political point and to try to gain public support for their opposition to them, they are selecting examples that they think will have the greatest impact.  I suppose that is human nature.  They cite forensic examinations only at odd-numbered houses; not visiting every residential burglary; not investigating serious assaults; email us your own scenes of crime photos – all these have been chosen for maximum public impact and to shock.  Because the withdrawal of officers seconded to diversity outreach projects, or writing ‘Equality Impact Assessments’ (which, by the way, you really should search for on your local force’s website), or ceasing to cover for local authority agencies which refuse to maintain a 24-hour service just do not excite the vast majority of the population in the same way, do they?  Even if, truth be told, they should be the first place the axe falls.

They have though, now, gone too far.  By refusing to enforce road closures and thereby depriving towns of their traditional Remembrance Day parades the leaders in places like Essex and South Yorkshire (although I am sure there are others) have struck gold.  I can just imagine the gleeful grins at the Chief Officer group meetings when somebody came up with the idea.  Because not only does it strike at the heart of the community, not only does it give a hugely visible demonstration to everybody of the wickedness of the cuts but it also fits in neatly with the mistaken, but oh-so politically-correct view that Poppy Day, parades and honouring our war dead is just a little bit right-wing, nationalistic and of course, racist.  So it is a win-win: Demonstrate the effects of the cuts and wave the flag for how on-message and inclusive we are too, all in one two-line decision. And all the opposition will be turned on the cuts, not on the Police decision.  I mean, we aren’t going to see the Epping Royal British Legion instructing counsel for a judicial review, are we?  As much as I would love to. 

Obviously nobody had the wit to realise or suggest that the dishonour is equally applicable to the many black, Asian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish men and women who have given their lives for this country.

I have advised reading this piece – – before.  It shows that our policing is ridiculously expensive, that it is the bureaucracy and the non-core activities which have added in the cost.  Strip these away, concentrate on policing and the available funds, even after cuts, will be able to provide much more. 

As a minor example, consider the ‘Equality Impact Assessments’ I referred to above.  My local force, Suffolk Constabulary, has 80 or so of these available on its website.  Covering many different policies and practices.  Each is a multi-page document, written by somebody, monitored by somebody and updated by somebody.  Who knows, maybe they are even sometimes consulted by somebody and found useful, but this might be fanciful.  They contain a few gems – my favourite so far is here:

It is an assessment of the impact of their traveller encroachment enforcement policy (which, as far as we residents see, in practice is to do nothing) on transsexual travellers resident on an illegal site.  Forgive me if I have an advantage here, but I have spent quite a few hours of my life on traveller sites, for one reason or another, back in the days when the policy wasn’t to do nothing.  And not only have I never seen a transsexual, the attitudes displayed towards anybody not conforming to their distinct lifestyle and principles was less than tolerant, so much so that I suspect Suffolk Constabulary’s policy might be the least of worries for that individual.  Where does all this utter garbage come from?  Well, there is a requirement in law for each Chief Officer (i.e. Chief Constable) to certify that all new policies have been assessed for their potential impact on equality.  Which of course is fine, except that it has spawned a whole new assessment industry, costing not just paper and ink but people and time.  

Now, staying with Suffolk Constabulary, there is a certain sharing of Chief Officer functions with its neighbours in Norfolk, but the salary costs for the joint top team will be at least £500,000 per year.   I do not begrudge them one penny of their salaries, but I expect that for our money we might expect a bit of leadership and responsibility, in all areas.  And one of those ought to be equality impact.  Why do they need a team, an assessment, a document written by others?  Surely they have the intelligence and experience to look at their new policy and decide that it complies, or needs to be changed to comply.  Why can they not just be a leader and do this, cutting out all the bureaucracy and cost of these documents full of drivel? 

Did anyone just shout out “Responsibility”?  Of course, how silly of me.  If the assessment is done by others and it is wrong, there is the corporate responsibility / organisational contrition / institutionalised incompetence defence still available.  If somebody puts his or her name to it then there is always the chance they might have to take responsibility themselves.  And 21st century Police leaders really don’t know how that works.  Perhaps they could outsource it?  The assessments I mean – they outsourced personal responsibility years ago.  That might save some money and we could get back to having Remembrance Day parades.  

Thursday 6 August 2015

Just say "No".

Oh, the irony.  As we are told that Leicestershire Police are rationing resources by investigating your burglary vigorously only if your door number happens to be odd, as Sara Thornton doubts whether police could or should visit burglary victims anyway, what happens?  Five forces embark upon another series of resource-intensive investigations which cannot possibly result in the suspect being prosecuted.  Because he is long dead.

The one senior police officer to get it anything like right this week was Sir Peter Fahy when he tweeted:

Just because we are there 24 hours a day does not mean that we are always the best suited to deal with vulnerable people after 5pm

At least I think he did.  If I have interpreted the tweet correctly it fits exactly with a principle growing ever-stronger in my thinking: That Police must concentrate what they have on policing, that they must pull in the tentacles which have been stretching ever-further for the last 30 years and stop filling in for deficiencies in other public services.  As unpalatable as that appears for an organisation which, as a whole and through its individuals, actually does care.

How does this fit with the Edward Heath story?  I will explain.  Ignore the strong possibility that the politically-motivated, the insane and the spiteful might make false allegations.  Let us assume there is something in the claims.  In the situation where 70000 officers have apparently been lost, where residential burglary is being placed on the back burner, where officers of all ranks are squealing every day about their inability to police the community properly, what is the point in spending time and money looking into allegations of crimes many years ago where the alleged perpetrator is dead and therefore no prosecution can follow? 

“The victims”, I hear the resounding cry.  Yes, of course.  If there are victims they need caring for. Indeed – and I promise this is without cynicism – they might also need compensating.   Is the best way to meet these needs really as by-products of a criminal investigation which cannot possibly achieve the outcome for which that process actually exists?  That is of course, identification of the offender and adjudication on his guilt of innocence, followed by sanction if it is found proved.

Victimisation comes in different forms.  We tend to think immediately of the criminal justice system as the first call to help victims simply because crime produces more of them than negligence, faulty products breach of contract and the like, or indeed than accidents and natural disasters.  But there is no doubt that non-criminal acts do leave us with victims – who also need support and compensation.  And for which there are mechanisms in place – counselling, social services, charities and of course litigation.  That is where the support and redress for any victims of Edward Heath should lie. 

Consider a person going to see a solicitor, saying I was abused by Edward Heath in the 1970s and I want to sue him.  How might the solicitor respond?  I suspect that professional ethics would mean a referral for counselling and support, and a judgement would be made about the possibility of a successful claim against his estate balancing the likelihood of acquiring sufficient evidence to prove the case and other considerations such as time limitations.  If the lawyer thought the claim must fail then that would be the answer.  I much prefer this as the sensible way for any Heath victims to seek assistance.

Why then use police resources to facilitate help for victims of historical crimes where the suspect is dead?  Because the perception is there is nobody else?  Because only Police can investigate? Of course not, once more it is police leaders making decisions because they lack the courage to say no.  Because they fear the consequences (to themselves, their reputation and career) of a clamour of criticism if they point out the truth - That any investigation must go nowhere, that the sensible thing to do is to direct the victims to those who can help them and to concentrate what is left of their investigative capacity on current child-abusers who not only might one day end up gripping the rail at the Crown Court but more importantly present a current and future danger to our children.  Which is the vital thing for us to get right.

Please do not think in any of this that I am showing any contempt or lack of compassion.  We know people were abused in the past, both by the famous and by the unknown.  We must acknowledge that, offer assistance to those who have suffered and learn so we can prevent abuse going forward.  There is a judicial inquiry in to child sex abuse already established.  Perhaps the sensible thing to do is to widen its remit so that the Heath allegations are looked at there?  As that inquiry progresses it is likely that it will uncover evidence of offences committed by persons who are still alive; of course it is right that those offences are referred to the police for investigation and action. That would be very worthwhile, there would be an obvious reason to do that. 

But let us not detract from the ordinary, necessary, policing of our communities by diverting resources to pointless investigations which can be adequately and thoroughly dealt with elsewhere.  On this, as with many other extraneous demands, Police need to learn to say “No”.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Like using a Model T Ford on the M25
A romantic curiosity, historically significant but totally unsuited to modern life.

Nick Alston used the announcement of his stepping down from the role of Essex Police and Crime Commissioner at the next election as an opportunity to state a view about how we do policing.  While it was picked up by local media, I believe it is one which is deserving of much wider coverage and debate.  Quite simply, he thinks that foot patrols, the beloved ‘Bobby on the Beat’, is an outdated and ineffective way to try to police 21st century Britain; that the resources supporting it would be better used elsewhere.  And I think he is correct.

The public clamour for visible foot patrols has frequently been described as “harking back to a golden age of policing which never existed”.  The principle is often associated with references to ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ – a TV series which ran from 1955 to 1976 and which itself was a spin-off from a feature film, ‘The Blue Lamp' from 1950.  In which the principal Bobby on the Beat was shot and killed.  Despite this, Sir Ian Blair is credited with trying to perpetuate the concept in 2002, while Deputy Commissioner of the Met, by inventing Police Community Support Officers as a cheaper way of providing visible, reassuring foot policing.

Why do we, almost uniquely in public service, try to cling on to the methods of the 1950s in policing?   Times change, the way in which we live has changed and technology has made life in 2015 in many ways unrecognisable from sixty years earlier.  Hospitals, paramedics, firefighters, schools, social services – the list of agencies which have moved with the times is virtually endless.  But we cling stubbornly to a romantic notion of a man or woman wandering around a small area, smiling and chatting, admonishing now and then and making the people who see them feel safe, apparently.

If you have the opportunity to speak to those who actually did street policing in the 50s and 60s – as I, fortunately, do quite often – you will learn that it really wasn’t all smiles and stroking small animals.  Policing was confrontational, in many ways much more so than today.  Foot patrols were the default because there was no real alternative.  Far fewer officers could actually drive vehicles for one thing; more importantly communication with them was difficult – there were no radios, no mobile phones or pagers.  Messages got to officers in one of two ways –either the Police Box or Post, where a flashing light would alert the passing officer to a message, or another officer being sent to find the patroller to pass it on by word of mouth.  In order to make this work officers were assigned to relatively small beats and required to make regular ‘rings’ – calls in to the station from a box or post to see if there was anything new to learn and also to confirm they were where they should be.  The regimented discipline which required them to remain on their beat was part of the best system of command and control which technology then allowed.

By the early 1970s things had changed, radios and the greater availability of vehicles had led to the adoption of the ‘Unit Beat Scheme’, almost always referred to as Panda Cars.  In the same way as modern leaders have embraced advances in technology and integrated them into policing, those in command in the mid 60s saw the opportunity to modernise and mechanise and provide a better service.  But the mid-60s also saw the rise of challenge to police authority, fuelled in no small way by disgraceful corruption cases, free-thinking media and energised lawyers supporting victims.  Though the two developments were separate and parallel, many viewed them as cause and effect.  Bobbies in cars didn’t speak to the public, hence they were becoming aloof, unapproachable and remote.
In 1972-3 an experiment was conducted in Kansas City to see what effect patrolling officers had on reported crime, by varying the levels of patrol across discrete but similar beats from none to saturation level.  The short answer is there was no discernible difference, in reported crime, fear of crime or public satisfaction.  The details of the experiment are freely available, for example HERE .  I read this paper at Bramshill in 1984 and was fascinated, as it seemed to point against many of the commonly-held beliefs in policing that we were still trying to serve. I then came across some other research (which I now cannot find but would very much like to) which said that on average an officer on foot patrol would pass within a quarter of a mile of a burglary or robbery in progress once every (I think) 12 years.  It might have been 2 years, or 22 years, I cannot remember but it is largely irrelevant, since it went on to point out that, even if the officer were aware of the crime, he/she would not necessarily thereafter be able to prevent it or apprehend the perpetrator.  So much for the reassurance of foot patrols.

I took this thinking with me throughout my police journey, from London to Yorkshire then Surrey and back to London.  Ploughing the major crime / covert policing furrow that I did I never had the chance to implement my ideas, but I still spoke about them.  And got sideways glances and rolled eyes when I did.  It was a heresy, just as some commentators are now describing Nick Alston’s views.

What are the justifications for foot patrols?  Two main ones I think, first community intelligence – the public police officers speak to are their eyes and ears is the common phrase. Are they, really? I am sure there will be anecdotal evidence of snippets passed on which have resulted in successful operations and improvements to community life.  Equally there will be many other officers who, like me, never had a sniff of useful information from anybody who approached me on foot patrol.  But in any case, now everyone has a phone, most a mobile phone. There is Twitter, Facebook, email, Whatsapp (for the moment), Snapchat, Instagram and hundreds of other apps I have never heard of.  Do we really think that anybody will not pass information on unless they can do it face to face?  When it can be done in those ways remotely, no meeting, where nobody can see and indeed with relative ease, anonymously?  

The key to attracting information is not a physical meeting, it is for the person with it feeling sure that it is worthwhile to pass it on – often, that something will be done about it.  And that concept leads on to my ideas on the second justification:

Reassurance is the other aim of foot patrols, we are told.  By which is meant making people feel safe when they see a Bobby on the bet.  Which is fine, for the individual actually seeing that Bobby at that time (and assuming they haven’t read the Kansas City experiment).  There are though a few holes in this argument.  First, the vast majority of this country is simply unsuited to foot patrol.  Outside of the cities and large towns each ‘beat’ is just too big to be patrolled on foot.  Rural areas have never really had foot patrol, sometimes bicycles but mostly motor-cycles or cars.  Even the Ladybird book from the 1960s gives a simple and graphic snapshot of how policing was then.  (Although if you do Google it, make sure you get the real one, not the very funny spoof).  

In the cities, the concentration of residents, residences and places of work means that the actual visibility of a patrolling officer in terms of the percentage of the population is similarly low. Think of it like penetration of the market.  Let’s say London’s residential and working population is sitting at 10 million people at some point during the night, there are some 58000 individual streets and we know there are less than 800 officers on duty.  Even in the impossible event that all these were on foot patrol (actually at least 700 of them will not be) each one would have to cover 70-odd streets to give everybody a chance of seeing them. If everybody else is awake, on the street or looking out of the window and remaining stationary. This is the absurdity of foot patrol as reassurance – your chance of being reassured is many, many thousands to one.

The question I would like considered by police leaders and especially by the public is this:  What is more reassuring, seeing a police officer walking past you once or twice a year or knowing that, when you need them, a phone call will bring two highly-trained efficient officers to you within minutes? 

A good analogy is with breakdown cover.  Would you sign up with the firm which says they have three vans driving around your town and if they see you broken down they will stop and fix your car, or with the company which promises to attend your breakdown within 30 minutes if you phone them?

My plan for action? Put the scarce resources currently used for local or neighbourhood foot patrols into making sure there is an excellent response to calls from the public.  Calling for police for good reason to be told there is nobody available is not going to work.  What about that PC handing out cards to kids in the street, or the one sipping coffee at the day centre?  How are they reassuring me when somebody is breaking into my car or spraying graffiti on the bus shelter?

Then, make the response meaningful – we need quickly to rid the community of the mindset they have been railroaded into that it isn’t worth telling the police because nothing will be done about it.  It is really difficult to get police to respond to some calls still – even if you know what you are talking about and point out the actual offences which are being committed as you speak. Yes, that was my  recent experience in Suffolk, I shudder to think how those without my background view such antics. 

The community can be your eyes and ears, but what is the point if the brain and body will not respond to the messages?  This can only be achieved by prompt, efficient and decisive response becoming the norm.  The public will then trust that calling the police is not the futile exercise it so often is at the moment.

Lastly, police leaders – including PCCs – must have the courage to tell the community how it is.  Yes, of course listen to their concerns and priorities but you have been seduced for 50 years into trying to deliver the results the public wants by the methods they (misguidedly) think they need.  We would never accept the community dictating methods to firefighters or the NHS, why do we allow it in policing? 

Police must listen to the public but the public must also listen to the Police.  Its leaders must be permitted to use their professional knowledge and judgement to deliver results in the most efficient way – which, in the 21st century, cannot include a romantic notion of adhering to a past perceived as glorious.

© Colin Sutton 2015 All rights reserved

Thursday 14 May 2015

Thoughts on the PCC's meeting

I feel enlightened.  I am not sure that is the aim of the Suffolk PCC's series of public meetings, but that was the effect.  Having been forced by my last 9 years of police service and the subsequent 4 years of media work into the very interesting, often exciting but ultimately rather narrow bubble of murder and major crime, my thinking needed a jolt back into more general topics.  And the meeting last night has provided it.

So much has passed through my head since I left the community centre last night, much of it with me standing in a new position - that of a resident, a citizen, a person looking at the police and policing from the outside.  It has taken a while, but I am there.

Which meant that, as the Chief Constable talked about serious and organised crime, the need for a Cybercrime unit, tapping in to regional resources I was thinking "Fine, but this is about the people who live in Mid-Suffolk."  How much of that actually touches them, has a malign effect on their everyday life?  Sure, many of us have had our cards skimmed, but the banks, willing to accept the risk rather than implement cumbersome and expensive security procedures, pay us back.  We don't actually lose out.  Yes it irritates that crooks are making money from it, but is it a priority for us?  Is it what we really want our scarce police resources being targetted on?  Investment fraud practised on the elderly by cold-callers.  Now there is a real issue that actually causes losses, but try to get the police involved in that.  Good luck, I have - from the advantageous position of working as a consultant inside two different Trading Standards Units. It was a nearly impossible task, even though the losses were measured in millions.

The businessmen in the audience were nodded to, "You know what happens when your supply lines get disrupted".  To which one reasonable answer would have been, "Yes, we have to find another supplier and the price goes up". That is, I think, just the economics of the market and applies just as much to drug supply as it does widgets and thingmybobs. Of course the drugs problem as perceived in communities cannot be addressed by mass arrests and prosecutions of users, as one man suggested.  The police, CPS, courts and prisons would be swamped, they just couldn't cope with the numbers.  But it fails at the first hurdle in any case - as soon as officers make an arrest the tedious custody, processing and administrative tasks take them out of the game for hours.

Of course investigation and prosecution of dealers up the chain has to go on, often by specialist units and regional or national agencies.  But let us not pretend that it has any measurable effect on the ills experienced by communities due to drug use.  So let us rely upon it neither to do so, nor to justify taking resources away from local policing.  Indeed, the only drugs operations I have been involved in which made a real difference in quality of life for communities were those aimed at disrupting overt sales and use on the streets - Operation Welwyn in King's Cross where I was the Detective Inspector, and its child Operation Rockwood which I ran as Head of Intelligence in West Yorkshire some years later. Street undercover operations in order to disrupt supply and take it away from ordinary people to make their streets safer.  But I would never pretend it was anything approaching a complete solution to the drugs problem, just a way of making life more pleasant.  And while it would have relevance in a few areas of a handful of Suffolk towns it has little I think to offer the rural rump of the county.

Speeding.  The bane of rural life some would say, and despite my credentials as a fully-fledged petrol-head, motorsport competitor I would agree.  Perhaps because, in small part, of that.  But as the Chief said, it isn't just exceeding the limit which causes danger.  Many of our roads have 60mph limits yet 45 can be dangerous given their nature and the type of traffic using them.  I am surprised that much more use is not made of s.59 notices - the power under the Police Reform Act 2002 to warn drivers using vehicles in an anti-social way.  First notice is a warning, the second in 12 months means the vehicle can be confiscated. Perfect to deal with drivers who are inconsiderate, careless or driving on footpaths or bridleways.  No equipment needed, just an officer with a pen and paper, minimal bureaucracy.  Assuming of course there is an officer available.

Which leads neatly on to numbers, resources, funding.  It is not going to be easy, we accept that.  Whatever your view on cuts, they are here for the immediate future.  We either shrug our shoulders and accept a worse service or get clever, get smart and get innovative.  Can a better service be achieved with less?  I think so, as does this former UK officer now working in Canada:

The key to that seems to be the reduction in bureaucracy and time taken for officers to deal with the administrative tasks which now beset everything they do.  Which is a problem for us, in that much of it is imposed at a national level, by Parliament or the Courts.  But a good and achievable start would be to restore the authority to charge for all but the most serious of offences to police, obviating to need for ponderous file preparation and liaison with the CPS before charges are laid.  Watch some of the TV films showing procedures in custody offices now, and see if you think to precautions taken, the questions asked of prisoners, the things done to accommodate them are sensible or unwieldy.  I wonder sometimes if the Custody Officer's badge ought to say "Police"; "Holiday Inn Express" might be more accurate.

I am sure the public desire is for police to enforce.  Not to advise, not to mediate and certainly not to ignore.  Yes, the process and our convoluted, cumbersome, over-sophisticated criminal justice system does not lend itself to a presumption of arrest and prosecution in every case but, to coin a phrase, other enforcement methods are available.  I have referred to the s.59 enforcement notice for vehicles already, similar provisions are in place for anti-social behaviour in terms of fixed-penalty notices and ultimately ASBOs.  Confiscations of uninsured vehicles, prohibition notices that sort of thing.  Indeed, just turning up and showing that the police care - that the community cares - with a firm word will have an effect.  Zero Tolerance doesn't have to mean arrest, it ought to mean that we don't ignore things.

The two pillars of local policing for local people are community and response. Yes it is reassuring to see patrolling officers (despite all research pointing to their having virtually no impact on crime levels) and the link they provide - eyes and ears - is too useful and integral to policing to be lost. Yet there is also, isn't there, a great reassurance in safely knowing that, when the chips are down, when something is happening and you really need police help, quickly, one phone call will deliver two professional, trained and competent officers at your door within minutes.  Personally I think this is the most important reassurance, others disagree.  Whichever way you think, can we agree that they are both desirable?  A feature of the tale from Canada in the link above is the high proportion of the workforce which is available for street duties.  I have no idea what the similar proportions are in Suffolk, but I am certain it will be nowhere near.  Despite the massive civilianisation programme the British police underwent since 1997 there are still too many officers in all forces in non-patrol roles.   The key to this is a multi-functional workforce with a default position of patrol, in community or response roles.  Where other demands arise they can be switched to a different role while the need persists, but we cannot afford a standing army of backroom staff at the expense of more visible policing.

Which also means that police must restrict themselves to policing.  I was interested in the Chief Constable's remarks about looking at the whole public service demand.  Yes there is overlap, with Social Services and Children's Services in particular but also with health and housing. But there must be a clear understanding of who does what and despite all these professions being staffed as they are by those who care, the temptation formally to fill the gaps caused by the shortcomings of other agencies is to be avoided.  We have already, in most places, washed our hands of lost property and a few other things the police have always done because there was nobody else.  Nothing should be ruled in or out other than patrol and response; some traditional functions will and ought to be examined carefully to see if their contribution to what the community wants from its police justifies their existence.  It is all scary and yet refreshing in equal measure.