Archive for March, 2011

The Invisible Police

You do not have to look very far at present to find a small group of people having a regular knock at the Police. At the top of the list of issues that they frequently repeat is the lack of visibility from Police officers. The issue is then picked up and repeated by the media, in places like Twitter and quickly becomes accepted as fact. Next year we will have the election campaigns running for the new Police and Crime Commissioners. I predict that all of the candidates will be telling the public that they will get tough with Police leaders, and force officers out of their stations into their communities.

I will not go into the way that police visibility is measured here, but I do want to illustrate the competing demands on police resources and why some officers are not visible to the public.

Firstly let me say that there is nobody prouder than me to wear a police uniform. I recognise and value the fantastic work carried out by neighbourhood teams and response officers up and down the country. I have carried out both of these roles fairly recently, and can testify to the way officers work tirelessly, out of the station, getting in the faces of criminals, and keeping people safe. Nontheless, we ignore the work of the invisible police at our peril.

Four years ago I was a Detective Inspector working in Wolverhampton. I received notice that a sex offender was about to be released onto my area from prison on license. The man was a predatory paedophile, who had offended against children in the past. The prison assessment was that he was highly likely to do so again.

As you would perhaps expect we put a comprehensive plan in place to deal with him. He was visited by uniform officers and probation officers and spoken to. He assured all parties that he was a reformed character and that was would abide by the terms of his license. There were very strict conditions in terms of where he could or could not go. We also used a lot of covert  officers and techniques so that we could gain a better understanding of what he was doing.

Four weeks in, the man had been good to his word, only going where he was supposed to, and complying with his license. At this stage we were having to take difficult decisions. This operation was very expensive, the resources we were using were precious, and there were a whole host of competing demands. We take these types of difficult decisions on a regular basis, but it doesn’t make them any easier. We decided to run the operation for another week.

The man was arrested in week five of the operation. He was arrested in Coventry, miles away from where he was supposed to be. When my officers grabbed hold of him, he was accompanied by two little girls, and had just come out of  a sweet shop with them. When officers spoke to the girls they told us that they were en-route with the man to a local park.

Although these types of incidents are rare, I would place a hefty bet that this type of scenario is playing out somewhere in the country as we speak. During the operation I have just described, there was no public reassurance, because we obviously didn’t tell anybody. The operation didn’t count towards any kind of performance figures, and it was very expensive. Nobody saw the officers involved in this investigation, and they would clearly not have featured in any count of police visibility. No votes would have been won by any Police & Crime Commissioner candidate because they wouldn’t have known about the job.

Given the very real financial situation that Policing finds itself in, we will have to continue to make real decisions, based on real threat and risk, influenced by whole range of factors, one of which is visibility. Should we continue to invest our precious resources in the type of invisible policing that I have described above?

Perhaps the first people we should ask are the parents of those two little girls.

Money, money, money

We are currently in an era where money or lack of it is having a huge impact upon the policing landscape.

Last week saw the publication of two reports which will have a very significant effect on police officers terms and conditions for years to come. On Tuesday, Tom Winsor, the former rail regulator published his report into Police pay and conditions. This was followed by the Hutton report into public sector pensions.

In the space of a week, many officers have seen a future which is looking significantly worse than it was the week before. All of the public sector have been told to deal with a two year pay freeze and an increase in pension contributions, but seemingly uniquely, police officers also have to absorb a report into pay and conditions which will leave almost every officer worse off. This is I think much worse than most officers had expected, and has left many feeling a bit bewildered.

At the same time there has been an unprecedented campaign being carried out in the media, with many credible journalists repeating some tired claims, many of which are totally untrue. I will deal with some of them now;

  • Police officers can claim five hours overtime for answering a phone call on a rest day; absolute nonsense, it is expressly stated in our terms and conditions that you cannot claim for this. I have been called morning noon and night, (including being woken up this weekend in the middle of the night because my name was on the wrong rota!) on my rest days, spent hours on the phone and never been paid a penny for it.
  • Police officers get double time on a Sunday; again totally untrue Sunday is just a normal working day for the police
  • Police get free gold plated pensions; Police officers pay 11% of their salary into their pensions, the highest in the public sector
  • Only 11% of officers are visible at any one time; Police officers work shifts, 25% will be on a rest day at any one time, the rest split between earlies lates and nights. In addition we have officers posted to investigating rapes, murders, dealing with counter terrorism, child abuse, and a whole host of other things which are not visible. Which one of this list should we stop doing to fulfill a visibility target?
  • Police officers spend all their time in stations filling out paperwork; Most officers hate paperwork and will do anything to get out of being in the station. The majority of paperwork we fill out is to service the needs of the criminal justice system, where we see the same criminals again and again, being taken through the system by the same defence lawyers, demanding to see every scrap of paper in an investigation to see if they can find a flaw in the paper trail and get their client off. Every agency in the criminal justice system is moving towards a paperless system, but it is frustratingly slow, and over the years, every agency has built up their own systems, none of which are compatible with each other!
  • We can massively reduce back office numbers and save money; we will have to do this, but who is going to carry out all of these functions? In some cases we will be able to remove the function, or work with other forces and agencies, but in others we are going to have to ask officers to carry them out until technology catches up.

I do not seek to say that there is not waste in the public sector, nor in policing, and the state of the finances is forcing us to look at things again.  We should have been more aggressive in previous years, tackling waste where possible, and I suspect this is true of all public services.

My Dad is a builder who has to make a profit to survive and pay his bills, there is no room for sentiment in his world. Many practices in the public sector would not survive contact with the private sector, but this is not the whole story. Policing is a service, not a business, and it cannot be run like one. We need to be able to assess things based on risks to and needs of the public, not on a cost only basis. I once ran a hugely expensive operation targetting one man for months on end. He was a repeat stranger rapist who used terrible violence on his victims. All the prison psychologists told us he would offend again upon his release. We eventually got him locked up for the rest of his life. Was this value for money based on a private sector costs analysis? Probably not. Was it the right thing to do? Definitely.

Police officers do not join for the pay. They join because they like locking up the bad people and helping the good. Police officers will I am sure continue to serve the public to the very best of their ability, irrespective of their terms and conditions. We do not have the right to strike, but even if we did, I do not think for a second that most officers would ever want to.

When I joined the police service I never expected to find myself having to lead officers in this environment. We will step up to the challenge, but it is a funny old world at present.


@SuptPayneWMP

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