Alison Hernandez is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall.
Policing is awash with reports and statistics, and of these the recorded crime figures are perhaps the most challenging in terms of public understanding. Changing methods in the way data is gathered makes it hard to compare figures year on year, but that doesn’t stop them being great headline material – particularly when the trends are upwards.
For example, the latest figures available illustrate a significant rise in the recordings of rape and ‘other sexual offences’ in my force area (11.4 per cent and 17.2 per cent respectively). I would be shocked and surprised if the number of incidents have risen at these rates, so a rise in the recordings of these crimes is arguably good news – it means victims have more faith in the police to take complaints seriously and are hopeful of a successful resolution.
It’s more helpful if you regard the recorded crime statistics as what they truly are; a record of police activity. That leads you to a conclusion that few would argue with – demands on our police forces are rising at an incredible rate.
In my area of Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly that rise in demand puts strain on a force of around 3,000 officers covering a patch of 4,000 square miles. It’s not as simple as prioritising urban centres like Plymouth at the expense of rural victims of crime. I have a Police and Crime Plan which needs to deliver for every resident.
There are essentially two ways Police and Crime Commissioners can mitigate against this problem, by increasing the size of police forces and by commissioning and supporting work that reduces crime in the first place.
On the first point it’s clear to me that more money is needed to support greater officer numbers. My office is actively lobbying central government for fairer funding for a force which sees its population swell by millions of visitors in the summer months but is funded only for its settled population. There are more than 9m trips to the two counties every year and demand, particularly for roads policing, swells in response to this, but there is no recognition of this fact in central government funding.
In our force area 42 per cent of the population live in the countryside, and the ten forces which receive the lowest funding per head serve largely rural areas.
Residents of Devon and Cornwall are certainly doing their bit to invest in policing. Engagement work carried out by my office earlier this year showed us they were prepared to pay more if they got more police officers, so I, like most other Police and Crime Commissioners, took full advantage of the opportunity to raise our precept by £12. This money has been used to buck the national trend to recruit and train more officers, as well as to invest in technology like body-worn video.
We’re also coming up with innovative solutions to rural areas where tri-service officers have been recruited across Cornwall and Community Responders – Police Specials trained as on-call firefighters – will take up posts in Devon early next year.
With regards to commissioning to reduce demand there are a number of initiatives we are involved in. Some of the most promising work is about ensuring the mentally ill are dealt with by the appropriate medical services before their behaviour results in an incident in which they or someone else becomes a victim of crime. We are due to launch an early intervention scheme next month which has the potential to dramatically change the way police deal with people who they suspect are mentally unwell by referring them to medics.
My office is also working with the Devon and Cornwall Criminal Justice Board to provide funding and support to develop a mental health treatment requirement which allows the courts to sentence people to a programme which can help them, instead of a solution which might include an expensive and inappropriate custodial sentence.
My force estimates that dealing with mentally unwell people takes around 40 per cent of officer time. If we can get people the help they need this frees up officers to deal with those who choose to break the law.
We’re also working to reduce offending through initiatives like Pathfinder, which diverts those who are at risk of falling into a cycle of criminality, and prisoner release programmes which give offenders a better chance of starting over and a chance of employment.
For me, the opportunity to impact crime figures isn’t simply about policing but relates to the ‘and Crime’ part of my title. Rises in recorded crime cannot be solved by police alone, it’s only by fostering relationships with the NHS, government departments and local people that problems get solved and safer communities created.