‘The police are the public and the public are the police’ – Sir Robert Peel’s most often quoted principle is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century and reminds us of the police’s need to reflect the communities they serve.
This has been brought to the fore with the Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda, which is open to interpretation and means many things to many people. As the national lead for ‘Citizenship in Policing’, I know the ‘Big Society’ is happening all around us and has been for some time. Advances with neighbourhood policing in recent years has proven that there is no disconnect between the police and public - in fact quite the opposite is true.
We currently have more than three million Neighbourhood Watch members across the country. These members support their communities by running community projects, securing funding, working with their local Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) or simply looking out for neighbours’ homes and being the eyes and ears of the community. I am also delighted to see that Police Support Volunteer numbers have reached 9,000 and that we have more than 18,000 special constables. During recent public disorder, the Special Constabulary contribution was powerfully demonstrated when they put themselves in harm’s way, helping police forces to maintain resilience and restore order. These officers contributed over 110,000 hours which equates to £1.7 million.
Likewise, police support volunteer roles continue to support the police across the country and help us in delivering a better service to the public. Supported by our roads policing teams, Community Speed Watch volunteers have given the community the opportunity to get actively involved in road safety by using speed detection devices.
More recently I have seen an increase in citizen patrol schemes. Although there have been concerns about schemes under which communities patrol their own neighbourhoods encouraging vigilantism and risk to the public, it is not a new concept. Faith based citizen patrols such as Street Pastors and Street Angels have been around for years and have made a significant difference in preventing crime, helping people and keeping them safe. If residents wish to help make their communities better, safer places to live, my view is the police should support them and enable them to make this happen.
Reduced budgets and austerity measures have forced the service to look at efficiencies, but also created opportunities. In Avon and Somerset we currently work with the Woman’s Royal Voluntary Service to use their trained volunteers to provide telephone support to vulnerable elderly people who call the police for non police related matters. We currently field in the region of 10,000 calls a year from this group and this partnership will enable us to add capacity using appropriately experienced and trained volunteers.
But this is just the start. How can we use other third sector groups such as the one million RSPB members to tackle rural crime? Or how can we use the British Red Cross for spontaneous crisis support?
Another innovative concept is Facewatch, a web based crime reporting system empowering the business community. The system allows businesses to provide an evidential package and upload CCTV images within minutes of a crime occurring. Images can then be shared between businesses with the ability to reduce crime. In areas already using the system it has significantly accelerated the process of crime recording and officer time and resource.
But empowering communities and getting citizens more involved with policing does bring with it a number of challenges. I believe the police service is still very risk averse and I regularly hear the same reasons why something can’t happen instead of what we need to do to make it happen. Health and Safety, costs, vetting - it’s all too risky! All valid concerns, but they should not be the default position.
Looking ahead I am supportive of innovation and building on what has already been achieved. I would like to see more specialist Special Constabulary roles in departments like mounted, roads policing and CID to name a few. I am also encouraging forces across the country to embrace appropriate volunteering opportunities. I truly believe that greater involvement of communities within the policing mission will improve the service through these challenging times and ensure that we continue to deliver policing with the public and not merely for them.
Rob Beckley is Deputy Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Constabulary, and is ACPO lead for Citizenship in Policing.