Community policing is a bedrock, not a luxury

Date: Tuesday 6th February 2018

Sir, Last week you reported that Cumbria’s police and crime panel had approved an increase in council tax to pay for an additional 25 police officers in order to improve the police service in the county. However, it is worth pointing out that an effective police force does not simply depend on the number of officers available, but how they are deployed.

The chief constable, Jerry Graham, is quoted as saying that crime has become more complex, and funding has gone into areas such as counter-terrorism, so much so that “policing has almost been bent out of shape and community policing is the bit that’s lost out”.

My response to that statement is why has community policing been allowed to lose out? Surely it is more important than that. It is my contention that community policing is not the icing on the cake, or even the cherry on the top; it is the cake itself.

Clearly in an age of scarce resources not every issue can be tackled — however pressing — so difficult choices have to be made. This burdensome task can’t be ignored and has to be faced. That is why our chief constable is paid an annual salary of £140,000 to make those choices — though I accept that his freedom to act is constrained, to a certain extent, by national guidelines.

The temptation for senior officers is to pay lip service to the concerns of ordinary citizens and instead focus on what they consider to be far more important matters. So while there is a lot of talk about “neighbourhood policing” and “community engagement” it has recently been deemed inappropriate for officers to attend parish council meetings.

This might seem like a wise move but in practice it is often the only occasion a real police presence is ever seen, particularly in rural areas. An occasional appearance, in person, shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Senior officers would do well to remember that a significant proportion of the police budget comes from council tax, and those who pay it have a right to be taken seriously; otherwise they will lose confidence in the very force that is meant to serve them, and that is a serious concern.

One long-standing solution to the challenge of community policing has been the deployment of 95 police community support officers (PCSOs) in Cumbria, who provide a visible presence but very little else because they have such limited powers.

This is a hugely wasteful and inefficient use of resources. If PCSOs cannot, at the very least, be granted authority to issue fixed penalty notices for parking offences, catch speeding motorists and take statements — in other words be more effective — then their continued existence should be seriously questioned.

Another more recent initiative is the citizens in policing program, which aims, among other things, to increase the number of special constables.

This surely has to be a far more cost effective way of proceeding than employing a handful of additional regular officers. Special constables have the same powers as any other officer and also the added advantage of local knowledge.

In many ways this is probably the future for community policing in Cumbria unless there is a radical policy rethink. So I would encourage concerned members of the public to consider volunteering their services.

At the same time the police should not continue to be used as a safety net by other struggling organisations such as the NHS and local authority social services, because that soaks up an inordinate amount of police time.

There has to be a more efficient way of dealing with the deficiencies of these public institutions. The police are not a baby-sitting service and should not be used as such.

Cumbria Constabulary has the noble vision of “keeping Cumbria safe” and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of that statement. In fact, I’m sure that most people living in Cumbria do feel relatively safe and secure, but that probably says a lot more about Cumbria than it does about the effectiveness of its police force.

Basic community policing should not be seen as a luxury that depends for its existence on the whim of senior officers, but as the bedrock on which the whole police service is built. Such is the will of the people. Yours etc,

PHIL DEW

(County councillor for the Kirkby Stephen division)

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