Posts Tagged 'police'

From Hard times to Hyperlocal

It will not have escaped your attention that the country is experiencing some financial turmoil at present. The news in the last 24 hours has been dominated by a claim that 10,000 police officers will be lost over the coming year. I have no idea if these numbers are true (I’m not sure anybody knows yet), but it is safe to say that in years to come there will be less police officers, less fire officers, less local authority employees , in fact less of lots of people employed to look after us.

I claim no insider knowledge here, I have a good idea what is going on within policing, but a combination of common sense, and watching the news leads me to anticipate a reduction in these posts. Essentially for any organisation, people are the most expensive resource, and therefore any significant reduction in funds is likley to see less people on the ground. We are all trying to make sure that we preserve as many frontline staff as possible, but we will need to explore new ways of delivering our service in these hard times.

One of the difficulties facing policing is that we are often seen as the service of last resort. You will have heard the 999 tapes where people ring us up because they have lost their house keys or can’t find their cat. All services are going to have to take a long, hard look at what they have the capacity to deal with.

I can remember as a young Sergeant volunteering to go to a job where a group of kids had reported seeing a snake. Overcome by a feeling of gallantry, I decided to go and save the kids from what I was sure would be a small grass snake. On my arrival, the snake was about 7 feet long, bright yellow, and not at all intimidated by me and my extendable metal baton. I ended up having to phone Dudley Zoo, and a man (who I later found out was Mark O’Shea, a famous reptile wrestler from TV) turned up, muttering something about it not being dangerous. He duly dispatched the snake into a bag and the world was safe again.

This illustrates my point, whose job is it to deal with escaped snakes? Who says that police have to deal with lost property or take in stray dogs? I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but we are going to have to find ways of helping people to help themselves in some areas where they would previously have rung us.

This is where we come on to hyperlocal sites. My view is simple, all public services ought to be reading, and engaging with hyperlocal sites in areas that they serve. They are an incredibly important method of talking to our communities and finding out what their priorites are, what they are worried about, what they want us to do, and what they are happy for us not to do on their behalf. They already exist, and they are just waiting for us to engage with them.

I would go a step further and say that public bodies ought to be actively encouraging communities to set up hyperlocal sites. There are some fantastic examples of  communities making a real difference to their local environment through this medium. Will Perrin from talk about local is well known for his work in this area. He talks about a community who were fed up of dog mess being left on the pavements outside their houses. They came up with the ingenious idea of making little flags branded with the name of their local authority. They then planted these flags in every dog ‘deposit’ they could find, took a picture, and posted it online! Needless to say, it did not take long for the local authority to get it’s act together and clean the streets on a much more regular basis.

When a child loses her cat, they would have a much better chance of finding it if a picture of Tiddles was posted on a hyperlocal site covering their postcode than they would have from asking a police officer to find it. The same is true of a whole host of other issues that communities can actually resolve for themselves, without going to their local public bodies. The local bodies responsible for that area have a new way of engaging with, and having conversations their communities.

Once these sites are in existence, we can then talk to them, help them, and of course take flak from them when we aren’t getting it right. If you click here it will take you through to a simple tool which enables you to search for a hyperlocal site in your area. Any neighbourhood police team, housing association, parent/teachers association or any one of the other public bodies working in an area with a hyperlocal site should be talking to them. If there isn’t one on your area, try and work with the community to set one up, there are loads of people out there happy to help and advise.

I do not pretent that these sites are the solution to all of our problems, or that there will not be really difficult decisions to make moving forwards. Nontheless when we make decisions about local services, we ought to do so from a position where we have listened to local people and allowed them to influence us.

As  a Superintendent in Wolverhampton, I will be regularly reading the excellent WV11 and hopefully making the odd contribution. I would urge all of my police colleagues to find their local sites, read them, and engage with them.

As ever, I value your thoughts…

It’s a great life really……

On my second ever day in the police, I was called to a ‘sudden death.’ As the probationer on the team I was taken by my Sergeant to the scene to make sure there were no suspicious circumstances. Once in the house I was told I would have to search the body, to make sure there were no knives sticking out of their back or anything else that might have prompted my inexperienced 23 year old mind to suspect foul play. Nothing in my life to date had prepared me for this experience, but I was determined to look professional, so I pulled on my plastic gloves and bravely knelt down alongside the deceased. It was at this point that a horse walked out of the kitchen into the lounge where we were all gathered. Nobody but me batted an eyelid, this was apparently quite normal in the area. At this point I realised that the life of a police officer is anything but normal.

I am often asked by people I meet what my job is like. If I am honest I absolutely love it, and would never consider doing anything else. I frequently have days that if they were WH Smith gift experiences people would pay to do them. There is nothing like the thrill of locking up a good criminal, deploying a firearms team to take armed criminals off the streets, or a surveillance team telling you that they have just secured a crucial bit of evidence.

There are of course bad days too. I have had to deliver numerous death messages. There is nothing that can prepare you for having to tell somebody their loved one is dead. I have had reactions ranging from people physically hitting me, to calmly offering to make me a cup of tea and offering me a comfy seat. They are all truly awful experiences and I remember each one.

I have been really lucky to have spent almost all of my sixteen years to date on the frontline, in uniform and CID. I love the complexity of CID work, and have worked at all ranks as a Detective. I have blogged before about murders, but I have been involved in some fantastic jobs targetting career criminals and been able to deploy some great gadgets against them. Most of the stuff you see on telly has some semblance of truth in it, although I do tend to sit through cop shows saying “thats not how it happens”, driving my Wife mad.

I get frustrated by paperwork and bureaucracy. I don’t think it is quite as bad as people make out, and to be honest if I cant see the point of filling out a form, I generally tell my officers not to, and wait to see if anybody notices. You would be amazed how many times they don’t.

I can’t think of another job where you could see so much strange human behaviour, or where you see so many funny and tragic incidents. I once got called to a man who told us he had taken an overdose. On closer inspection, he had swallowed a whole bottle of Tixylix. Needless to say, he survived, although I understand he didn’t have a cough for months afterwards.

I still struggle with people who are aggressive towards officers just because of the uniform. I have been on the receiving end occasionally, and have been attacked with fists, feet and knives. Luckily I am reasonably handy, having spent  most of my formative (and later) years studying Karate, but the people attacking me don’t know that, and I often wonder as I am picking them up and dusting them down what they would have done if I couldn’t defend myself. I have avoided any serious injuries, but have seen some colleagues get badly assaulted.

 I am shortly to be promoted to Superintendent, and although I will still take every opportunity to get out of my office (I have the attention span of a goldfish) I am moving away from the frontline. I may suffer the odd paper cut, and paper clips can be nasty if you get one under your nail, but I assume my days may contain a few less adrenalin bursts.

Although I can’t wait to move to my new role (watch out Wolverhampton) I will really miss frontline policing and day to day investigation. The vast majority of police officers are like me. They joined to keep people safe and lock up bad people, they are on the your side, and want to help. We don’t always get it right, and sometimes get it quite badly wrong, but the majority of the time, I think we do a good job. Don’t take too much notice of the occasional report about officers spending all day doing paperwork, and withdrawing into offices. They are out there day and night, working hard and targeting villains.

As ever, let me have your thoughts…

Policing:Further adventures on Twitter

Over the past 24 hours, the Local Policing Unit from Birmingham South have been tweeting live incidents and their officers’ responses to them. Armed only with a hashtag (#bsp24) and a new twitter account, they have ventured out into the world of social media. Judging by the excellent feedback they have received, I am sure they will be  extremely pleased with the results.

Two weeks ago, I spoke to the Commander from Birmingham South, Phil Kay, and discussed the idea with him. He is really forward thinking and had already set the ball rolling with his communications team. At that point they had around 70 people following them on Twitter. By the end of the 24 hour output they had well over 1000.

I have blogged before about the need for police forces to engage more pro-actively in the area of social media, and the example above really does illustrate the point.  The communities of South Birmingham clearly want to engage with and talk to the Police. The Commander and his staff now have the ability to communicate with 1000 more people than they had at this point two weeks ago, and perhaps more importantly (and this is the key strength of social media), the community has a way to talk back.

Throughout my years in the Police, we have always struggled to get some communities to engage with us. We labelled those communities as ‘hard to reach.’ It turns out that they were not that hard to reach, we were just reaching in the wrong places. Social media platforms provide us with an absolutely fantastic opportunity to have conversations with people, to recognise their problems and to tell them what we are doing about them.

In the 18 months or so since I first blogged about this issue, the situation in UK policing has improved significantly, there are now some fantastic examples of officers using social media in new and innovative ways. However there are still large areas where there is no social media presence, where officers are actively prevented from engaging by force policies which have simply not caught up with the technological advances of the last decade.

There are now hundreds of officers up and down the country using social media. To my knowledge no riots have been triggered, no officers have been sacked, we have not had to spend huge amounts of money and there have been no breaches of the official secrets act. What we have had is lots of conversations with the people we police and forged some really positive relationships.

To those police areas not currently engaged, I ask the same question as I did in my first blog; Why are you waiting?

Drugs; dealing with the dealers

This week my officers swooped on a large scale drug supplier, we recovered about 4 kilos of class A & class B drugs, together with several thousand pounds cash. The dealer and his accomplice have both been charged and remanded. The week before that the courts granted an order taking £56,000 off another dealer and a further order setting out a repayment order of over £800,000 against him.

I tweeted the result and got a great response, people seem to enjoy seeing drug dealers locked up. I also got another familiar response, ‘Great result but what about the drug dealers where I live?’  Communities see people dealing drugs outside their houses every day, and understandably get frustrated when they don’t see the police taking action. As somebody who has run a drugs job or two, I thought I might set out some of the issues that we have to address when we are dealing with the dealers.

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, we have to prove that they have actually dealt some drugs, or intend to deal them. This is not as easy as you might assume. People caught with relatively large quantities of drugs will often claim they are for personal use, but as they are regular users they have ‘bought in bulk.’ Although this might seem ridiculous to normal people, you need to bear in mind that we have to prove everything to a court ‘beyond all reasonable doubt.’ All the prospective dealer has to do is establish that doubt and they know they will get away with a simple possession of drugs charge which carries much lighter punishment. Therefore any dealer worth their salt will only carry small amounts at any one time, going back to their stash to stock up on a regular basis.

So if just finding somebody with quantities of drugs is not enough, we have to use different techniques to prove they are dealing. We will often watch several deals take place, arresting the buyer out of the sight of the dealer, to prove to a court that there is a course of action taking place. As you can imagine this carries quite a large risk of compromise. Dealers will tend to sell drugs in areas they know and where they are comfortable. Police activity in these areas will quickly get reported back to the dealers and they will shut up shop.

When we are told about a dealer, we often execute warrants at their houses. Again this does not always bring success. They do not leave their drugs lying about for us to stumble across, they hide them, and they actually put quite a lot of thought into it. The dealer who we took the £56,ooo at the start of this blog was burying his drugs in an old lady’s back garden which was insecure.

Taking out a good drug dealer often required many hours of painstaking surveillance and gathering of evidence. This is expensive and difficult. It requires the completion of reams of forms to get the authorities and the painstaking compilation of the evidence gathered. Drugs are exchanged in very small packages, and it is not always obvious when a deal has taken place, again the ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ argument is applied, we have to prove that our potential dealer is not a raging socialite who often meets up with 200 people a day for around thirty seconds at a time.

There are few things more satisfying than unearthing a dealers stash, knowing that you have the evidence to link them to it. Police officers continue to arrest dealers and enforce the law, but it is not as straightforward as you might think. I hope this blog has given you an insight into the day to day battle that we have with dealers, and the reasons why it might appear that we aren’t taking action.

It is really important that people work with us. If you suspect somebody is dealing drugs, tell us. You might not see immediate action, but it starts the ball rolling, and is sometimes the little piece of knowledge that we need. We know communities want to help us, they don’t want dealers on their street corners or outside their kids school. The best weapon we have at our disposal is information from the public.

Thanks for reading, let me have your thoughts…

Murder: From the inside out

There is a widespread fascination with murder investigation. Turn on your TV tonight and see how long it takes for a fictional detective to become embroiled in an investigation. Walk into a bookshop and see how many of the titles are thrillers where somebody is killed in the first chapter, and the rest of the novel features our very clever (but troubled) hero solving the crime.

I have spent a large part of my career as a Detective and have worked on and run plenty of murders. I thought it might be interesting to blog about the reality of murder investigation.

Each murder investigation is different, but there are threads that run through all of them.

The most obvious thread is that every murder is a tragedy. Victims vary from housewives to criminals, young to old, but every one will have a family and a story.

One of the most difficult but important jobs at the outset of an investigation is meeting the family. These are incredibly challenging and emotional meetings. Just imagine meeting somebody for the first time and telling them that you are responsible for solving the murder of their son, daughter, husband or wife. I have done this many times, and it never fails to have an impact on me.

During the initial hours, the pressure on the SIO (senior investigating officer) leading the investigation is immense. You are thinking about setting up the teams, preserving the scene, meeting the family, managing the media, setting up house to house trawls for witnesses, arranging the post mortem, starting a CCTV trawl, searching for offenders, securing vital evidence, setting a budget, talking to the coroner and a million other things.

You must also prepare to tell your own family that you probably won’t be at home for the next week.

I always visit the scene. I meet the forensic manager there, and always walk through the scene. Not all SIOs do this, but it helps me to get the lay out in my head, together with any blood splatter areas. On my last murder, analysis of the blood splatter patterns in the scene was crucial to understanding what went on. I try to keep the body in situ, as that often tells a story. I sometimes call the pathologist to the scene if I need an early opinion.

Dont believe any TV programme that shows simple post-mortems. They take hours, and they are always extremely unpleasant. Pathologists can’t generally give you reliable times of death, that is TV fiction.

Once the initial frenzy has died down and you have put some structure in place, you start to turn your attention to actually investigating. Almost all murders are solved through detailed examination of the evidence and forensics. The SIO has to make sure that they are aware of the detail of a huge amount of evidence. You reach a point where you feel as though you cannot absorb a single further piece of information, but you must because it may just be the vital link.

Once you have established your team, you need to brief them, I like to brief first and last thing, the amount of breakthroughs that occur when all the officers involved are in the same room is incredible.

The pursuit of an offender can last for minutes or months. I have recently had officers all over the country chasing down suspects and following up leads. I have run two protracted manhunts this year. They involved really long hours and require me to make dynamic and difficult decisions. Once you have located the offenders there is very often a requirement to run a firearms job to actually arrest them, if they have killed one person, how much risk are my officers at?

While all of this is going on, further demands are thrown at you; Who was the victim? What was their ethnicity? What is the impact on the community? Are more people at risk? What are the media saying? Are you prepared to speak to them? The pressure that I feel at this stage of an investigation is immense. Everybody is looking to you for answers, and it is really important to build in some time to actually think and plan.

Normally at this point you will realise that you haven’t eaten since breakfast and you will send somebody out to get the first in what will become a series of takeaways. Murder rooms are not healthy places.

Once the suspect is under arrest, the pressure continues to grow as the clock starts ticking. My interview teams will have been working on an interview plan whilst the hunt for the offender has carried on. There will be plans in place for the forensic recovery off the offender, doctors are called to assess their health, and the defence solicitor lands ready to be briefed.

There is a strange relationship at the best of times between police officers and defence solicitors. This is magnified during murder investigations. Partly this is because of what is at stake, but also officers investigating murders find it difficult to remain detached. You meet the victim’s family, find out every detail of their life, meet their friends, examine their movements, look at their phone messages, visit their workplace, and really do feel as though you know them. The defence solicitor has none of this, and it is their job to help the suspect. This is of course entirely right and proper, and officers and solicitors are professionals, but nonetheless these relationships are often awkward.

Once the interviews are finished, the Crown Prosecution Service enter the fray, as we engage with them regarding a charging decision. These are always long and complex discussions, but if the evidence is there (and it should be after all the effort) the suspect will be charged. The initial paperwork is put together and submitted (there will be months of follow up files to be submitted) and the suspect is sent to the cells waiting for the next court session.

In my opinion murder investigation is amongst the most demanding and rewarding work it is possible to do. I am waiting to be promoted, so I may have run my last investigation, but there is nothing more exhilarating, frustrating, exhausting and satisfying than investigating and solving murder . I hope that this has provided you with an insight into the reality, from the inside out.

Ashes to Ashes?

There was a remarkable symmetry to the past week or so for me. Ashes to Ashes returned to our screens, Detective Inspector Frost retired, and I returned to the investigative arena, as  a Detective Chief Inspector running three major crime teams in the West Midlands.

 DI Frost and DCI Hunt are fictional detectives. They are both rebels who bend rules on a regular basis to ensure that the bad guys are locked up by the end of the programme. They have become folk heroes as a result of their maverick approach to fighting crime, harking back to the ‘good old days’ when police officers seemed to resolve almost every crime with a ‘clip round the ear.’

Although there are clearly large elements of both programmes  dramatised for TV purposes, there are some elements which I am sure many officers will recognise. Frustration with form filling, solicitors, needless dictats and bureacracy from organisations set up to monitor ‘throughput , output and productivity.’ (Don’t ask me I have no idea what they mean either.)

I have been a Detective for the majority of my career. I will be blogging about some of my day to day experiences and jobs.  I have previously investigated (and solved) numerous murders, tackled drug networks, taken guns off the streets and dealt with a whole host of serious crime. I love my work, and can’t wait to get stuck back in!

In the past, police forces have invested lots of energy telling people about neighbourhood policing and uniform patrols, whilst keeping some of the more complex work, often carried out by Detectives,  shrouded in mystery. If we are to actually make people feel safer, it is really important that we are open about the level of protection that goes on behind the scenes keeping them safe.

Future blogs might not be as exciting as DCI Hunt, (‘Fire up the peugeot diesel’ doesn’t have quite the same ring as ‘Fire up the Quattro’), but it will be real and it will allow you access to an area where your previous opinions will probably be based on a combination of The Bill, Silent Witness and Morse.

Hopefully you will find it interesting, let me know if there are specific areas of crime investigation you are interested in reading about.

Twitter on the frontline

On 3rd April 2010, the English Defence League staged a protest in Dudley. Unite Against Facism were also in Dudley on this date, taking part in a multi-cultural event. These two groups are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their views, and on previous occasions when they had met there had been disorder and violence.

Both of these groups use social media as their preferred form of communication. In the past, supporters from both sides had used twitter to spread misinformation about the other, increasing tension and stoking up hostility. I was in charge of communications on the day and took the decision to work from the scene of the protests, armed with an i-phone to compliment the rest of my equipment. ( Not much help in a traditional ruck, but essential for mobile communications.)

Using the i-phone I was able to use tweetdeck to monitor a range of messages from all sides of the argument. I was in touch with the command cell, and able to dispel rumours instantly.  Before the start of the protest, there was a message posted on Facebook that EDL members had smashed the windows of a mosque overnight. I checked, found it was not true, and tweeted a message to say so. Then a tweet was circulated that an EDL steward had been stabbed by UAF supporters, again after checking I was able to refute the allegation. This carried on throughout the day. When the EDL broke through police lines, I was able to update people straight away, and all significant events during the day were subject to messages.

This is groundbreaking stuff for policing in the UK. We have used social media as a broadcast platform during protests in the past, but we have not had immediate updates from officers on the ground, enabling two way conversations. Of course I was subject to the usual abuse from a minority, ( I still don’t understand why people bother to swear at police officers, I was immune after about 20 minutes in the job.) I also had a number of queries about why the police were paying somebody to monitor twitter, as though I did nothing else but tweet all day.  The overwhelming majority were however really positive, and I have had fantastic feedback.

Couple of health warnings, with immediate messaging it is much more difficult to corroborate facts. I put out a message disputing a chant had taken place, when in fact it had (sorry @NMEC) confusing a legitimate journalist with an agitator. Also, once you commit to this, you have to have the capacity to maintain it, and the battery on my i-phone came perilously close to running out twice (thanks @skynews for the recharge)

It is really important not to use social media in isolation, but as part of a wider strategy to get messages out. Whilst I was tweeting I was also updating  traditional media, providing interviews throughout the day and getting messages out to the communities of Dudley through our comms network. ( I also did a fair bit of actual policing, nice to be out of my office.) Social media will only ever be one form of communication, but the unique two way nature of it makes it increasingly important to policing.

Throughout the day it was also clear to me that lots of traditional journalists were following my twitter feed, and there is a real overlap between the two mediums now. I was able to answer questions from journalists in realtime, and they were able to check on the accuracy of their reports. On the day new and old media complemented each other.

Overall for a first try, despite the hiccups, I was really pleased with both the use of twitter, and the reaction I got to it. I would be interested to hear your views…


@SuptPayneWMP

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