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.

Mid-Suffolk PCC Public Meeting, 13th May 2015

Despite my interest in policing I've never been to a public meeting with the police before, at least not as a member of the public.  Perhaps I was just too scarred by the experience of being savaged in Islington in the 80s or frustrated in Bradford in the 90s while sitting on the other side of the table, but more that I didn't think I would want to put myself in a position which would probably just result in my sympathising with the speakers rather than the audience.

However, a less-than-satisfactory telephone encounter with Suffolk Constabulary earlier this week caused me to be looking at their website, and I saw that there was a meeting last night in Eye, the large village/small town just 3 miles away. Speaking were the Police & Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore, the Temporary Chief Constable Gareth Wilson and my local Inspector, Tristran Pepper.  So it was I arrived, early as usual, in the Community Centre car park waiting to play my part in feeding back community views on policing.

As is often the case, I found some humour in the situation straight away.  Four youths were, as I arrived, sitting on the playground equipment smoking.  Now it might have been that they could only afford the one cigarette and that was why they were passing round between them, but I suspect there may have been a less legal reason for it.  And while they certainly looked up (and stopped sharing) while first the Chief and then the Inspector walked into the building in uniform it didn't actually put an end to their fun.  How ironic, I thought, if someone were to mention youths taking drugs in public areas in the meeting about to begin.  I wasn't disappointed.

As the meeting began I looked around at my fellow participants.  Around 20 members of the community and a handful of staff from the PCC's office I guess.  A man videoing the meeting for later upload to the website and a lady serving the free teas and coffees. With biscuits. Our part of Suffolk is very rural and eyeing the public attendees I realised that all were 10 years or so older than me with the exception of a 40-something man in a tie sitting behind me who seemed quite organised, being in possession of some sort of PCC publicity material upon which he had made copious "black spider" notes.  I tried, mentally, to predict the issues to be raised.  Cynics in the Met always say that, whatever the crime situation, the public always complain about dog mess on the pavement.  I discounted this, if for no other reason than that the area actually has very few pavements, and put my imaginary bets instead on speeding, drugs use and visibility of police.

The meeting began pretty much on time and for once the audio and visual equipment worked flawlessly, at least after the PCC had found the button on his radio mic.  He started, inevitably running through the financial challenges facing the Constabulary, the changing demands it faced and reassuring us that he would not be "chucking other people's money at it".  Of course, not Mr. Passmore - you are a Conservative - we all know that is Labour's method.  There was a quick reinforcement of his view that he was right to refuse to amalgamate the Constabulary's Control Room with our neighbours in Norfolk - the one most contentious decision of his reign to date - although without offering any reason for his conviction.  Perhaps it has been all been done before; certainly nobody seemed to want him to expand. He ended by explaining that much research had been conducted on domestic violence and acknowledged that "the system does need improvement" and then touched on innovation, referring to an initiative titled "Evidence-based policing".  Which, I thought, didn't sound all that innovative - surely policing had been based on evidence for a very long time.  Or at least ought to have been?

The Chief was next. He has a pleasant and relaxed style which I warmed to.  He stressed the changing nature of demands, that "cyber-crime" and other new problems had largely filled the gaps in demand created by the fall in more traditional crime, hence the overall demand levels had changed, he said, very little.  He accepted that staffing levels would continue to fall and suggested that this could only be met by reducing calls for service, which would enable him to do a better job but with fewer resources.  He was keen to talk about serious and organised crime, the Eastern Area Specialist Operations Unit, Counter Terrorism unit, the ATHENA regional intelligence project, mobile working and body cameras.  I couldn't help but think that, as interesting and exciting as all that might be it was possibly a little beyond the issues that this audience was keen to explore.  The course of the discussion later confirmed this to me.  Lastly, and what was much more relevant was his desire to "understand the demand on the public sector in the county" - with a view to reducing demand by identifying duplication and overlap.  

The final presentation was Insp. Pepper, who ran us through the (improving) figures for victim satisfaction and reductions in anti-social behaviour and domestic burglary in the area. He was entirely reassuring and gave the clear impression that he was a man who cared about his role and succeeding in it.

So, on to questions from the floor.  First up a well-spoken man in the 'pole-position' seat, by the aisle in the front row.  He advanced his view that drugs were the root cause of all crime, and expressed his horror that he had recently heard there was heroin in the area.  The PCC sympathised, said that he personally loathed drugs and that it was the top priority of the policing plans, adding somewhat curiously that we should "rest assured that everything is being done that can be done, but we can always do more I suppose".  Eh?  A few more comments from the floor drew the expected and ironic reference to drug-taking in public areas and then the microphone was passed to the man behind me with the notes.  Who started eloquently but suddenly and without warning flew into a 'hang em and flog em' rant as to how all drug users were criminals and had to be treated as such, arrest them and prosecute them and it is problem solved. He used the phrase 'nail them' a number of times; I don't think he was actually advocating crucifixion but to be honest I don't think any of us was absolutely certain.  It was a very interesting point in proceedings for me - how would this largely senior, probably pretty conservative audience react?  I was a little surprised and quietly relieved that he received absolutely no support.  

A few references to policing hunts followed, from which I learned only that it is a subject which polarises opinion - as if we didn't know that.  And then on to speeding.  The Chief was, as throughout, calm and measured in his responses, explaining that the mobile speed cameras were not a cash cow, were sited so as to have the maximum impact and that Community Speed Watch schemes were expanding and successful.  A few eyebrows were raised when he said that on some rural roads it was difficult to enforce speed limits because it was dangerous to put officers there - due to the speed of passing traffic.........  He quickly qualified this by saying that of course it could be done but that the officers' safety had to be paramount.  We knew what he meant but it was just a slightly clumsy way of expressing it I suppose.

We went on with a discussion about 'eyes and ears' which enabled me to make my point about the difficulty of getting deployment decisions right; I was entirely happy that my feedback was well-received and will be taken into account. Those on the platform appeared to accept that new methods and processes were unlikely to be right first go and that adjustment would made where it was needed.  

The last point was made again by the man with the notes.  He started by apologising for his earlier rant, and in complaining about the lack of police visibility in the town of Stowmarket even made passing reference to Roy Jenkins and the Unit Beat scheme of the 1960s, before spoiling his apparently comprehensive knowledge and research by getting the year of the Brixton riots wrong and repeating an urban myth about the role played by local officers in it. Which upset me a little, but not as much as it did the pole-position drugs man, who stood up, turned round and forcefully accused notes man of monopolising the meeting and ruining it for everyone else,  High drama.

Except it wasn't quite the end, as the microphone then got passed to an elderly man who had so far remained silent, and who proceeded to ask the PCC a question about youth engagement.  Which was a little odd in that there had been scarcely a mention of this throughout the rest of the meeting.  The PCC though clearly relished the question and gave us a 5 minute run-through of the 3 initiatives he was working on in this area.  It was certainly a friendly question to ask him and actually made me wonder if it wouldn't have been better for the answer to have been delivered as a statement in the PCC's opening remarks.

That, then, is my factual report of the meeting.  In my next blog I will try to unpick a few of the issues it highlighted to me.