If you follow policing in the media, then you have probably noted Bryony Gordon’s (@Bryony_Gordon) comment piece in the Telegraph (It’s criminal how little our lesser-spotted police officers actually do, 14 August 2015). My parents (who have no connection to policing – other than me) even sent me the above photo of the accompanying cartoon suggesting I order a print!
I was pleased to see Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) Sarah Hamlin (@ACCSarahHamlin), of Norfolk Constabulary, quickly and thoughtfully respond to the piece in a blog and Assistant Commissioner for Territorial Policing, Helen King (@HelenKingMPS), of the Metropolitan Police, extend an invitation to accompany officers on a ridealong or walkabout.
I wanted to put down some thoughts from my perspective, as a ‘Dedicated Ward Officer’ – perhaps more widely known as a ‘lesser-spotted police officer’ (or perhaps I’m actually the subspecies: one of the ‘more-spotted’ lesser-spotted?) with responsibility for 13,600 residents in part of Clapham.
I also wanted to share one of my own experiences as a member of the public, for it was not all that long ago that I was on the “other side”.
Burglary as a Victim
Eight years ago, shortly after graduating from Oxford I moved to London to start work at PwC and was renting a small flat with two friends in Battersea. I remember coming home one Friday evening in December to find the front door had been kicked in. Inside, the criminals had searched the flat and stolen all of our laptops, phone chargers and – most alarming of all – a large kitchen knife.
Police attended and explained the chargers were stolen to be paired with phones already stolen in street robberies. Forensics also attended and I remember feeling (rightly or wrongly) a little disgusted with how black fingerprint dust had been left all over everything (see door frame above). Looking back now, I can say that seeing the black fingerprint dust everywhere just reinforced the sense of violation. Everywhere I saw the dust served to remind me that the criminals behind the burglary had been there. Drawers were off their tracks, bedding was on the floor, and I remember the flat feeling cold – since the insecure door had let all the heat escape.
Perhaps a day later, in the evening, I remember being in the flat alone. I heard the buzzer go, and I picked up the intercom and saw two or three burly, rough-looking characters outside via the fuzzy video link. Hand on heart, I thought they were the burglars – returning. I felt somewhat paralysed by fear. I almost didn’t dare speak. It turned out that they were in fact plain clothes officers popping by to collect a list of the property that was taken. The list was on an A4 sheet. It had been left with us by the original officers who attended. It had the appearance of having been a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. I honestly wondered: “Is this list going anywhere other than a bin?” and (perhaps quite unreasonably) “there’s no way this lot are going to ever catch anyone”.
To my knowledge, the burglar(s) were never caught for the crime against me and my two flatmates. Objectively, it was a ‘good job’ by the police: primary investigation complete, statements taken, forensics attended, property list obtained. Yet, at the time, I can’t say it left me feeling confident or pleased. I rather wished I’d taken the time to provide some constructive feedback around the small things that had unbeknownst to them undermined their good work.
Burglary as Beat Bobby
Fast forward to the present day and I am no longer simply a member of the public, but a police officer, with 13,600 residents to protect. Just recently we have had a growing burglary problem. Some of them during the day, others overnight. Some of them have been disturbed (one by a young child), some of them have forced entry to the home, some of them have climbed through an open window. However, from my own experience, I know that each and every one of them causes huge upset to my residents. It also upsets me.
I have done my best to attend each and every one to follow-up, to reassure and to update. Have I managed to? Honestly, no, I’ve probably only made it to half so far, though I do hope to clear the backlog soon. I have had to choose how best to allocate my time to address the burglary problem: time spent behind a computer analysing the crimes, checking on the status of possible suspects (who’s in prison, who’s recently released, reminding myself of their MOs), looking at neighbouring areas for similar offences, and of course dealing with all of the other on-going policing issues that land at my feet (neighbour disputes, mental health issues, shoplifting, speeding, abandoned vehicles, drugs, gangs, and on the list goes).
I am always trying to strike the right balance between being visible to the community, which isn’t always the most effective crime-fighting tactic, with being more pro-active in plain clothes, but which isn’t generally visible to the law-abiding public.
I have long held the philosophy of “if I don’t do it, nobody will”. What does this mean? It means, if I have a burglary problem, then I assume that if I don’t do something to tackle it, then nobody will. If I don’t stop and search suspicious characters on my patch, then nobody will. If I don’t stop and say hello to Mrs Miggins, then nobody will. It might sound cheesy, but I really do see myself as the thin blue line for the people of my ward. It is an ethos I am trying to cultivate in my newer colleagues – it’s also something I hope Police Now-ers (@Police_Now) will adopt. Perhaps, put even more succinctly, it is taking ownership of my beat.
The result is that as soon as I have identified a crime pattern, I will take steps to tackle it. Having spent time analysing recent crime reports, I stopped two men at around 8am and after searching them (with grounds that perhaps I wouldn’t have had without knowing my patch and doing my research) arrested them both for burglary.
Will any law-abiding residents have seen me while I was (for the rest of my shift) booking the burglars in at custody, seizing their clothing, doing the necessary paperwork and carrying out a post-arrest search of their premises? No, but I was working damn hard for them.
At short notice, having identified an overnight burglary problem on my patch, I changed my scheduled uniformed 8am-5pm day shifts to plain clothes 10pm-7am night shifts. The results were good – no further burglaries, three arrests and many more good stops.
Will any law-abiding residents have seen me over that set of night shifts? No, but I was working damn hard for them.
Of course, I’m fortunate. I can flex my shifts relatively easily (e.g. I don’t have children) and at the end of the day who doesn’t want to catch a burglar? I have a Sergeant who has both taught me a great deal, and who, along with our Neighbourhoods Inspector and Chief Inspector (@RoySmithMPS), supports and encourages the work I do. I recognise my good fortune in this regard.
I also feel a great weight of responsibility upon my shoulders as a Dedicated Ward Officer. Neighbourhood policing has for too long been seen by many as the poor relation to response policing. I see this among some colleagues and I see it among much of the media.
Neighbourhoods is where you have to learn to think for yourself, to identify and tackle the problems in front of you. Neighbourhoods is where you really can fight crime, rather than just report it. Neighbourhoods is where you can prevent crime and not just detect it. Neighbourhoods is where you can innovate and try new things, however small (e.g. business cards, this blog, Twitter). Neighbourhoods policing done well, can and does make a huge difference.
I might be lesser-spotted – but I work hard and, within the confines of our existing (but soon to be overhauled) IT systems, I work smart. I’m not seeking or claiming victim status, I’m not making excuses, I’m in a job I love and I’m there to do all that I can for the 13,600 residents who – whether they know it or not – rely on me to fight crime in their neighbourhood.
I’m not unique, there are, as Ms Gordon remarks, “many brilliant police officers out there”. It’s also true that I’m not perfect, I can’t do everything and I do make mistakes. I also try to always view things from the perspective of the public I serve – though it’s not always easy. And in return, I offer my residents the opportunity to join me on a “walkabout” so that they might see things from mine and that I might learn a little more about their concerns and perceptions.
When Worlds Collide
All too often policing is about the colliding of worlds, whether the ‘collision’ of a burglary suspect and victim in a hallway, police and a drunken violent male outside a nightclub, defence and prosecution in a sterile court room with 20:20 hindsight, or – as in this case – the opening of a newspaper article on policing over the breakfast table (or the same article posted via Twitter!).
When these worlds collide we do well as a Service, as ACC Hamlin puts it, to “always be learning” and “to listen to difficult accusations levelled at us”. Policing all too often adopts a super-defensive tone and posture, when in our own hearts we know there may be some truth in the accusation being levelled.
For example, for those who may suggest Ms Gordon’s comment piece is “unfair” and ought not be published, perhaps revisiting our own Met Police Staff Survey (2014) can provide some perspective in relation to the quality of service we think we provide:
Barely 1 in 3 staff agree that if they contacted the Met as a member of the public they would be confident of receiving a good service. This is clearly a figure nobody in any organisation would be happy with. With this level of confidence in our own performance, we can hardly be surprised when members of the public – including those who happen to be journalists – “have a go” because they (like 2 in 3 of us!) think we can do better.
In closing, I hope Ms Gordon accepts the invitation to accompany officers on foot in a neighbourhood. Why? Because just as we owe it to residents (and the media) to open ourselves up, to help give them an insight to policing as it really happens in 2015, we also, as a Service, benefit from these walkabouts/ridealongs. We are able to spend some real time getting to understand real people and the real concerns they have. And, as I learned from my own experience as a victim of burglary, sometimes it’s taking the time to understand and fix the small things that can make the biggest difference.