Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
Despite crime being down – largely due to two years of a pandemic that resulted in fewer of us on the roads and more time spent at home – confidence in policing hasn’t seen a corresponding rise.
Whether it is the unacceptable and inexcusable behaviour of a small number of officers, or recently released police statistics showing that only five per cent of burglaries are solved (down from nine per cent in 2015), I am repeatedly challenged by the public about why they should have confidence in our police.
We read almost weekly about how few rape and serious sexual violence cases come in front of the courts, and how few result in conviction. Only one in 77 reported rape cases result in charge, and there is no doubt that the wider criminal justice system, including the CPS, has much more to do in order for women not to feel as though sexual offences have been all but decriminalised. Should they be confident that they will get justice?
In Surrey, a county that is one of the safest in the country but where our burglary solve rates stand at just 3.7 per cent (significantly below the national average) I can’t blame our residents for asking difficult questions. Indeed, I am asking our senior leaders in the Force the same questions.
And without good answers, we are in danger of the public thinking that the police are no longer doing their job.
The primary role of policing has always been to prevent and detect crime, and to protect life. This has evolved in complexity and policing has increasingly become the agency of last resort as gaps have grown in other services.
Now, only 12 per cent of calls into the police relate directly to a crime. If you speak to any police officer and ask them how they spend their time, you will be left in no doubt that they are struggling to keep up with demand. But where is that demand coming from?
The pandemic has meant that we are seeing more cases of mental ill-health, and the police are often the first responder. When an ambulance service is too busy and local services can’t cope, it is the police who will turn up to deal with cases that we all know shouldn’t require a blue-light response.
‘Places of safety’ are often difficult to access and it goes without saying that if no crime has been committed, then someone suffering from poor metal health shouldn’t be held in police custody. Surrey Police alone respond to 42 mental health incidents and seven missing persons, per day. Half of those mental health cases involve an individual police have dealt with previously.
Our NHS has received unprecedented funding in recent years and must get a grip on this; it is simply not sustainable for our police forces to have to act as social workers or untrained medical staff.
What of other demands on police time? ‘Non-Crime Hate Incidents’ (NCHIs) made the news back in December when former police officer Harry Miller challenged the College of Policing guidance on hate crimes. The Court of Appeal ruled in Miller’s favour, unanimously declaring that the recording of NHCIs are an unlawful interference with freedom of expression and contrary to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
How did it come to this? Surely the clue is in the title – it’s a non-crime. Why, with so many burglaries and other serious crimes going unsolved, and the demand on police time from other urgent cases, are the police spending any time recording non-crimes, and not on ensuring the public are safe?
The College of Policing is yet to update its guidance on NHCIs but I know I’m not alone among the public in thinking that this isn’t what we want from our police.
I also make an appeal to any parliamentarians reading. It is entirely understandable that when the inbox is full of campaigns for good causes, and national groups are seeking your support for their undeniably worthy aim, you want to take action. But legislative action has consequences.
I have an enormous amount of sympathy for those who have sought to make misogyny a crime. It is a particularly nasty type of prejudice that is still far too prevalent in our society. But I don’t believe it should be a crime and that is, in part, because I don’t believe in making things criminal that are almost impossible to police. We know demand outstrips resource and that we must prioritise. To me, that means protecting life and property, not hurt feelings.
Restoring the public’s confidence in policing won’t happen overnight. It won’t be the result of one Government announcement or of a new Met Commissioner. It will involve some difficult conversations about what policing is for but, almost as crucially, about what it is not for.
Let’s start with scrapping non-crimes and getting policing back to solving crime and keeping us safe.