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.


13 Responses to “The Invisible Police”

  1. 1 Steve Favill March 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Yours is a perfect example of how police activity cannot always be measured. There is an enormous amount of similar activity going on behind the scenes that the public and the politicians will never be aware of.

    I once spent some time in talking a suicidal young man out of his mindset. Was it a life saved? Possibly, but although it was most likely a cry for attention who can afford to make that judgement?

    Many times, a police officer is sent because there is no-one else. Do we take the risk of ignoring the family’s call and having that young man take his own life because the expense of sending an officer could not be justified?

    You have a wonderful case in point there, but how many outside of the service, and especially those with the power to make policy, will actually read this and take it to heart?

  2. 2 PCWibble March 15, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    Good point, well made Sir!

  3. 3 oldish hack March 16, 2011 at 10:42 am

    “During the operation I have just described, there was no public reassurance, because we obviously didn’t tell anybody.”

    Maybe that is the one ‘problem’ that allows rumour and myth about police work to persist – not telling anyone about the work.

    There are many fantastic arrests and convictions that happen on a daily basis that are never shared with the wider public.

    From my experience of dealing with the police, officers do the job well but often forget that the public would be interested to hear of that success.

    Social networks like Twitter are helping to overcome that and there are many interesting tweets from officers that offer the public a better understanding of the work they do. That said, the audiences remain small and it should not yet been seen as a replacement yet for communicating with traditional media.

    In the case in point, could details have been shared with the media at any subsequent court case? Or that he had been returned to prison for breaching bail conditions?

    Such information would help to provide the context to give the public a better understanding of police work.

    • 4 suptmarkpayne March 16, 2011 at 11:42 am

      Thanks for your comments.

      We did subsequently tell the media, following the court case, and the man was sent back to prison for a very long time. The point that I was trying to make was that at any one time these jobs are ongoing, and that for sound operational reasons we are unable to tell the public about them.

      Often at the same time, we are having to deal with complaints about lack of visibility, which is very frustrating when we know all of the excellent work that is going on, but are unable to tell the public and defend ourselves against attacks from people who really ought to be better informed.

  4. 5 sid30837 March 16, 2011 at 11:13 am

    It’s only a minority who is always having a knock at us. Also this minority often use rate my police site to make character attack on an individual officer or officers. How can LSM or PSD investigate this when the author does not revile his or her identity. Majority of officers who are honest hard working officers and often have their morale knock back. This minority need to understand social networks like twitter are valuable and promoted by WMP. To inform the public what positive thing we are doing within our community.

  5. 6 Dom Barnes March 16, 2011 at 11:27 am

    I think that there is a real difference between visibility and transparency. To some extent, its less about seeing more police on the streets, and more about understanding what they are doing. The fear and expectation is that you should see bobbies on the beat and that not seeing that means they are sitting in the station not doing anything.
    The truth is that there is so much more to police work than an officer walking the streets. And some of that is what the public perhaps don’t understand.
    One of my cousins is a police call centre operative. She works for the police, but not on the streets but does and important role, communicating between incoming calls and officers in the community.

    Reflecting more on this story, even when all appears well with offenders, even after long periods of time and multiple risk assessments, there are still occasions when the unpredictable happens, and someone who appeared to post little or no risk to themselves or others, hits a turning point and all of a sudden a tragedy happens and innocent people end up injured.

    I’m grateful for all the work the Police do that we don’t see, and the work of all the other organisations who only seem to get in the news when something bad happens.

  6. 7 polleetickle March 16, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Let me get this right: You’ve nothing more credible than a whimsical tug on the heart-strings to explain why Police aren’t as visible as the public would like?

    Police cuts sustained.


    • 8 suptmarkpayne March 16, 2011 at 3:03 pm

      I am trying to point out that policing is an extremely complex world, and we have to deal with a huge range of issues, some of which are visible and some of which aren’t. I actually have the task of making these decisions and balancing some of these demands.

      Visibility is critical, and I invest lots of effort making sure my officers are visible and effective, but issues like the example I explain do actually exist in the real world, and we have to deal with them as well.

      Happy to be having the debate though!

  7. 9 Cllr Mike Flower March 30, 2011 at 9:55 pm


    Two points. Firstly on your example. We have exactly this scenario in my ward due to the presence of an “approved premises” in a residential area which was installed through a planning loophole. My experiences there and your example demonstrates to me the failures of current policy regarding letting people out of prison on licence before they are really ready to be.

    That aside your point about invisible and visible policing applies also to the local NHS, fire service and local councils. There are loads of things people wouldn’t vote for that they do. But we live in a democracy where public services are accountable to the voting tax payers. The police force should be held accountable to the public in the way Councils are. It’s the public’s service afterall. The question is why the fire service, etc aren’t also following in the same way.

    It’s not politicisation of the police service. No one can yet explain to me what that actually means! It’s making the service democratically accountable to the people who pay for it. And that’s nothing to be scared of because it’s exactly what motivates police officers to join up in the first place – serving the public.

    • 10 suptmarkpayne March 31, 2011 at 7:43 am


      Thanks for your comments.

      The prison release licensing rules are tighter now, this person was released from an old sentence and therefore was not subject to the sme type of licence as you would be under more recent legislation.

      The current governance arrangements for policing include a mixture of elected and none-elected people in the form of the Police authority. We simply do not have enough detail about the new Police and Crime commissioners yet to understand what the impact will be.

      I agree that police should be locally accountable. I hope that the legislation around Commissioners provides us with a robust framework to work within, and that safeguards are established to prevent knee-jerk reactions and short term thinking in the run up to elections.

  8. 11 Dave Hasney April 2, 2011 at 10:24 am

    It’s interesting that Cllr Mike Flower cites the issue of ‘accountability’ as being a paramount requirement in policing, I don’t think many would disagree that, it is!

    That said, the police are probably already more ‘accountable’ than more or less any other public sector service, in everything they do.

    As mark points out, one of the major problems surrounding police work is the inherent public misconception around what is/is not a police responsibility and what they do/don’t do. Effective use of social media can go some way towards curing this.

    There also needs to be a greater acceptance of individual responsibilities right across varying statutory agencies. For too long much has been palmed off on the police service for them to ‘hold the fort’ simply because of resource availability or cost.

    It is no longer acceptable for elements of the CJS, Mental Health or Social Srvices teams to be able to abdicate their responsibility to the police, simply when it suits them because of limited resources. And, the public need to be aware of and drive this forward.

  1. 1 The Invisible Police (via Superintendent Mark Payne) | The Bankside Babble Trackback on March 17, 2011 at 11:59 am
  2. 2 Police Visibility: a host of golden daffodils? | The Bankside Babble Trackback on March 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm
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