It was fascinating to read in yesterday’s Times the thoughts of Essex PCC Nick Alston on local policing, not least because they appeared on the same day that chief constables met in London to discuss just what 'local policing' means in 2015 and beyond. As ever the headline, 'Beat bobbies are an out of date luxury we cannot afford', was not exactly in kilter with some of the content of the article; 'Mr Alston said that he did not support the total abolition of neighbourhood response teams and civilian police community support officers as a level of visibility "gives confidence to the public".'
In London chief constables discussed austerity, the changing mix of police responsibilities (we spend almost 80% of our time dealing with non-crime matters highlighted by the public), the capabilities required in the digital age and the role of partners in delivering a public safety agenda that covers a broad set of challenges from anti-social behaviour through to supporting the more vulnerable members of society and counter-terrorism.
The evidence tells us that focussed local problem solving works. That evidence is being constantly enhanced by the College of Policing in their online 'What Works' centre: feel free to take a look at their website. The College are also looking, in a three year programme, at how best to manage the demand on the police, response policing, public participation and engagement, as well as embedding crime reduction. This was agreed by chief constables and Police and Crime Commissioners to be a priority piece of work for the emerging College: what does the evidence actually say?
Of course, the issue that Nick highlights is what exactly does 'local' policing mean in a world of internet enabled devices of every sort. 'Local' may mean a rural village, or a part of a city, or it may mean inhabiting an online, virtual world. What is certain is that the sight of a highly trained officer or PCSO in a bright yellow high-visibility jacket has its part to play in dealing with some issues: anti-social behaviour, night time economy policing, the feeling of community safety or deterrence, based on evidence from the Koper curve (The work of Dr Christopher Koper - a criminologist and evidence-based policing expert from George Mason University in Virginia - suggests that time-limited hotspot patrols have a preventative impact). What is equally certain is that such a visible on-street presence can only have a more limited impact in a world of online grooming, internet-enabled fraud and where the private lives of citizens are also, effectively, crime-scenes, such as in cases of child sexual exploitation and domestic abuse.
Perhaps perversely, in some instances the clarion call for more visibility may actually make communities less safe, because the threat to them is not best dealt with by presence alone. As the patrol walks down your street, your child may be being groomed on line. Of course if your child sees the police as a trusted presence then they may feel able to seek advice, or share their need for help.
In all of this, partnership working is key. The online threats are best dealt with through a mixture of education, information and enforcement. The Crime and Disorder Act still requires a combination of local councils, health providers, blue light services and volunteers to have plans for the prevention of crime and disorder. In many places, integrated offender management teams show how that can be achieved. Every partnership needs to ensure that local people are at the heart of their work, as often they have the best ideas on how to solve local problems.
If local policing remains overly rooted in the past then it will fade away. However, dynamic neighbourhood teams, integrated with other agencies, vigorously managing local offenders, using visibility as a focussed tactic, supported by mobile technology, with a new mix of skills and able to deal with the online threat, will engender public confidence and make us all safer in both the real and virtual world.
Some seem to hanker after Dixon of Dock Green in the age of Minority Reports. We would do well to remember that, in the film The Blue Lamp, Dixon was shot dead. His subsequent TV resurrection obscures the fact that he was ill equipped to face the threats posed in 1950. We must ensure that our local teams are equipped to mitigate the threats that communities face into 2020 and beyond.
Simon Cole QPM is Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police. He leads for the National Police Chiefs’ Council on Local Policing and Partnerships.