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.