Cllr David Munro is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner in Surrey and a councillor in Farnham
Once upon a time during the dreary and meddlesome government of Gordon Brown, a performance league table of county police forces was produced.
Like so many of Labour’s initiatives, it aroused very little interest either at the time or since. But, for the record, Surrey’s Police Force came out top and, inevitably, another force – let’s call it Loamshire Constabulary – came bottom. The headline in one of the major Surrey weeklies was not: ‘County Police Force Triumphs’ but ‘Loamshire Bottom of the League’. I remember thinking at the time: “If not even the local press want to give credit to their own police force, there’s a job of work to do”.
Like all major public service organisations, Surrey Police Force has good points and less good.
Two recent headline stories illustrate that: the good one first. This November, a vicious four-member gang that burgled a house in Caterham were sent down for a total of eight years – not enough, some would say, but at least they’re off the streets for the time being. During their getaway they rammed the two police cars sent to apprehend them, and caused serious damage. Mercifully, no-one was injured and so, although the gang managed to escape temporarily, police officers were able to carry out a thorough search of the area and get their men. A happy ending, and demonstrating how, day in and day out, Surrey’s police officers carry out their duties, whether routine or dangerous, to protect the public and reduce crime.
The second headline does not have a happy ending though. In December 2013, a mother contacted Surrey Police to say that she thought someone was grooming her teenage son. According to the Independent Police Complaints Commission her call was brushed off. Alas, her son committed suicide a short time afterwards, and his groomer is now in jail. To say that the lack of response caused his death is going beyond the evidence, but it’s clearly not an episode that does credit to the force. Rightly, they have apologised.
I believe that one of the key judgements Police and Crime Commissioners have to make (amongst many others) is striking the right balance between standing up for the force they lead, and being rigorous in investigating and then putting right things that go wrong.
It’s not just academic: get that call wrong, and things can go badly adrift. Relentless knee-jerk criticism doesn’t improve standards, it compromises them: good people are more reluctant to take risks and challenge the status quo. Most importantly, it puts off high-qualified potential recruits who think to themselves: “Why should I become part of an organisation that just gets the flak all the time?” Recruiting high-standard police officers in sufficient numbers every year, so that they will be able to lead the force in the years to come, is one of the biggest challenges Surrey and surely all other forces face.
But a PCC needs also to be ruthless in stamping out dangerous and unsympathetic practices and is failing in his duty if he tolerates anything less than all members of the force doing their very best.
Good commissioners – and I hope to be of their number after May 5th next year – will work very hard to get the balance between support and criticism right. They dare not fail.