Peter Walker is a former Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police. He now owns SuperSkills, a Construction Training Business in Thirsk.
This week the crime figures were published. Against the last few years’ excellent performances, the trend was adverse. Doubtless in some CCHQ wastepaper bin there is a a crumpled piece of paper bearing the words “Police reform is working and crime continues to fall”.
Of course seeing recorded crime numbers going up is not good – although people who just talk about “recorded” crime demonstrate their misunderstanding of policing as a public service. Much of the impact of crime and disorder is at the psychological level.
Where I live in North Yorkshire is the safest place in the country, but I still hear people say they won’t go out after dark. I know people who won’t go to London, although statistically you’ve got more chance of dying from a bee sting in this country than in a terrorist attack.
But there is no doubt continued attention to performance is essential if the hard-won gains of recent years, in terms of acquisitive crimes such as burglary and car theft, are to be built upon. The police will need the active support of communities, not only in reporting suspicious activity but in terms of crime prevention and keeping their own property secure.
This is why it was irritating to see coverage of, and debate about, the crime figures getting hijacked by another story – that of Avon and Somerset Police officers wearing nail varnish to “highlight the problem of modern slavery”.
Quite properly, people are asking themselves: “Haven’t the police got anything better to do?”
This week has seen a glut of negative stories about the police, summed up by a Daily Mail article featuring officers in high heels (to highlight domestic abuse), stroking puppies (stress), and even wearing fluffy bear heads. But coverage like this is no longer the exception.
Many public sector organisations have quite properly identified the communication opportunities offered by social media, and there are some great examples of getting it right.
For example, road policing officers can convey information about traffic disruption. North Yorkshire, my old force, do that all the time, their updates punctuated with pictures of vehicles seized for having no tax or insurance, or whose driver has been found driving under the influence of drink or drugs.
In their constant battle to reduce fatalities amongst bikers they also produce Youtube videos of popular motorcycle routes across the Dales and Moors, to warn people of the hazards. Many other forces also have great output which contributes to the mission: reducing crime and keeping people safe.
Within this, there are bound to be campaigns that fall flat. Most have been well-meaning, but lacking in common sense. At a time when respect for authority has dwindled in society, there is a fine line between engaging the community and compromising the dignity of public office upon which respect is built.
You can paint all the rainbows you like on the side of the patrol car, but the job is to put crooks in the back seat.
Another issue is the question of whether the police can really afford to be adding on frills when they are facing both budget cuts and increased demand. There is no doubt that cuts in spending at the Home Office have affected both the police’s capacity and capability.
Whilst police spending has been protected in the current period, the additional requirements created by terrorism, cyber crime, and child abuse present challenges. Every officer not tasked with patrol or detective work means the demand is greater on all who remain – and every time someone goes to a specialist department, that’s one less cop on the late turn.
Will anyone remember from this week the coherent and well-researched restructuring of Norfolk Police? I doubt it, nor do I think the Police Federation will see much merit in the efforts of their members on patrol being undermined by people who think up the PR wheezes that have occupied the news.
The true irony of all this is that last month Andy Marsh, the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police, sent a joint letter with Sue Mountstevens, Police and Crime Commissioner, to Nick Hurd, the Police Minster. They claimed their force was at “tipping point” because of the cost savings they had to make. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
When David Cameron was leader of the Opposition, and subsequently Prime Minister, his early years were known for approaches that did not resonate with public opinion and resulted in some fairly direct feedback from Lynton Crosby.
The result? The message came back to “Cut the crap” and focus on the issues that meant the most to the majority of people. Perhaps Amber Rudd might pass this message to some chief constables.