Peter Steward's Web Site
The essence of my research project is to look at whether the public's perceptions of policing and the service they expect the police to provide differ from what the police actually deliver or are prepared to deliver.
I have been employed by Norfolk Constabulary as Press and Public Relations Officer for the last eight years. In that time I have been aware of what I felt to be conflicting views between the police and public. There was never anything concrete to support these views and they may have been based on perceptions and my own prejudices and built around my own thought patterns over the years.
For this reason I decided to find out whether there was sufficient evidence to back up my thoughts about the differences in this particular supply and demand field. I wanted to find out whether the public and police hold diametrically opposed views and if so to find out whether there was any middle ground or just two different bodies with one (the public) asking for something unobtainable and the other (the police) steadfastly sticking with an arrogant assumption that they really know what is best for the public.
I began my research with a number of basic and maybe
misguided pre-conceptions and assumptions which included the following.
I believed when I started the research that the public wanted a return to the cosy "Dixon of Dock Green" style of personal policing whilst Norfolk Constabulary is unable to provide this in the essentially high-tech 1990s. We are living in a vastly different world to the 1950s/60s scenario of policing as portrayed on television by such programmes as Dixon of Dock Green and Heartbeat. Today our vast ability to assimilate huge amounts of data on computers has itself led to whole departments being set up to deal with intelligence on criminals.
This has led to the targeting of more serious criminals and at the same time has brought a drop in the crime rate.
"There is no doubt in my mind that
being able to track and link criminals has helped to cut the crime rate in
the county," said a sergeant who works on the computer side of the
This reliance on "computer detection" has put pressure on any attempts to increase the number of officers on the streets.
In 1995, 51,333 crimes were recorded in Norfolk compared with 66,769 in 1992 when crime in the county hit record levels.
During my research many of my perceptions were changed and I will explain how and why this came about. I also came to realise during my research what a complex subject I was investigating.
Initially my research project seemed to be far too wide and demanding. I realised immediately that I could not undertake all-embracing research for the whole of the county.
I therefore decided to concentrate on a small "snapshot" area which I hoped would be representative of the county. I chose the village of Hethersett primarily because I have lived there and been involved in the local community for 17 years. Many of my pre-conceptions came from moving around the village and seeing the vandalism and results of crime on individuals. I was to find out, however, that my ideas on the "crime rate in Hethersett" were wrong.
Hethersett is a large village six miles south of Norwich and just off the main A11 Norwich to London Road. It is both a dormitory and commuter area for Norwich but has also maintained its village feel and character among its 5,000 inhabitants. There is a distinct green belt separating it from Norwich. The village continues to expand with a significant new development (Steepletower) on the edge of the village and, at the time of writing, plans for another 600 homes which are being opposed by the local council and the majority of householders on the grounds that too much pressure would be placed on the existing services, including policing, in the village.
Apart from private dwellings, it has an 11th century parish church, two other churches, a dental surgery, doctors' surgery, three schools including the area high school, a chemists, Chinese take-away, fish and chip shop, a number of supermarkets and other shops, a social club and two thriving public houses.
To me Hethersett is a typical large village which I anticipate would suffer the crime associated with an area of its size. It is mainly middle class in aspect and middle class in values.
My focus on Hethersett was designed to find out what the
village wanted and expected from policing and whether Norfolk Constabulary
were prepared or able to provide this.
Hethersett comes within the Norwich Division and is policed from a small "Section Box" (a sector police station) at Tuckswood on the main Norwich ring road. It is from here that Inspector Morris controls the policing demands of a wide area which includes the large villages of Hethersett and Mulbarton along with the areas along the Norwich Ring Road including Lakenham and Eaton and all the smaller villages that encroach into South Norfolk.
Inspector Morris is an extremely experienced officer known for his forthright views and the openness with which he gives them. The interview for this project lasted over two hours both formally on tape and informally.
He was quick to point out that far from being the "hotbed of crime" that some people envisaged Hethersett to be, it was in fact an area of very low crime:
"When the officer who covers the area was checking the computer he found that there was only I believe four or five crimes committed in the Hethersett area this month (April 1996). Now when the crimes are averaging out perhaps one a week, when would you put the policing attention there because the crime, assuming that it is this average of one a week, is not predictable. It could be criminal damage done at three in the morning by a drunk returning home or it could be school children on their way to school or it could be shoplifting from the local store ....
"If you look at the Hethersett totals, the most they had in any month in 1995 was 21. Eight of those were stealing from cars which was possibly done on one or two days. But if you look at burglaries in no month in 95 was there more than three in a month. I can go back to the year before when the highest crime rate of any month was 20 with the exception of one month when somebody admitted stealing from a shop on 16 occasions."
Inspector Morris went on compare the crime figures of Hethersett with Lakenham which, as I have already stated, he also polices. In 1994 Hethersett suffered 181 crimes compared with Lakenham's 1,487. Lakenham has approximately three times the population of Hethersett but eight times the crime rate.
I firmly believe that the crux of the matter is whether there is really a commitment to beat policing in villages such as Hethersett and my research has led me to believe that this is not the case for a number of reasons.
Firstly the crime-rate in such villages does not warrant the high intensive style of policing favoured by so many people and thought of as normal in the old days. Police resources are finite. Norfolk have the worst number of police officers per head of population in the country (see appendix ). The seriousness of certain crimes has led to the formation of specific squads to deal with car crime and burglaries, vice and fraud. The formation of these squads has led to increased distraction from the streets of our towns and villages.
But many people claim that although there may be little or no serious crime in Hethersett, there are a number of factors that warrant extra patrols. These are mainly nuisance factors caused by youths in the village and led to High School Head Teacher Marion Chapman sending out a letter to parents banning children from the school's playing field after school hours for a period of two weeks:
"I regret to have to inform you that the school is suffering at the moment from the actions of a small minority of students (and non students) out of school hours. We have received complaints from residents of (----------) which should never have been necessary.
"For the next fortnight (at least) the school grounds are closed to all students/ex-students after 5.30 p.m every day and throughout the weekend. This will add to the lack of recreational facilities in Hethersett."
The behaviour Mrs Chapman was referring to including littering the field, small acts of vandalism and noise disturbing local residents - the kind of thing that could have been eradicated by beat officers, but stand little chance of being detected. Mrs Chapman's "short, sharp, shock" seemed to work as the ban was rescinded after two weeks.
Secondly there seems to be a distinct difference between what official national and local policing documents say and what is carried out. To help underline this difference I would like to quote a number of pieces from written documents which seem to wholeheartedly support the concept of beat policing in villages such as Hethersett.
A 1996 report by the Audit Commission entitled "Streetwise" accepts that the Police Service cannot always deliver what the public expects but that it should make the maximum effort to do this.
"The expectations held by the public are not wholly realistic - they want more than the police can deliver, but Police Forces are not managing the rise in demand from the public as well as they could. The time which is available for non incident work could be better targeted and have more impact on public re-assurance."
Commission representative Kate Flannery has added these additional comments:
"The police have a difficult juggling act to perform. They have to meet the public demand for a fast response to emergencies and crack down on crime as well as providing reassuring foot patrols."
Kent's Chief Constable David Phillips has neatly summed up the public's desires in his comments on the Audit Commission's report:
"The report makes clear that patrolling the street does not have much impact on serious crimes such as burglary but well directed patrolling does reduce street crime, vandalism and anti-social behaviour."
This vandalism and anti-social behaviour alluded to by Chief Constable David Phillips is exactly the kind of thing that villagers want to see eradicated.
The Independent Committee of Inquiry into the Role and Responsibilities of the Police (The Cassels Report) is more specific in advocating beat policing. Among its recommendations are the following:
"A visible uniformed police presence must continue to play a significant part in modern policing and ways should be developed to enable more police patrols. Forces should listen and respond to the needs of the community it serves."
Unfortunately the report does not make any suggestions on how more police patrols can be developed.
The 1993 Sheehy Inquiry into Police Responsibility and Rewards had the following to say:
"Police officers should meet, consult and discuss with locally elected and consultative bodies so that they can take account of local policing needs.
"Patrol constables and other front line officers form the core of the police service. It is at this level that the day to day interface between police and public takes place. Public perceptions about the police service stem from such encounters. The role of the uniformed constables should be enhanced."
It can be seen from the above extracts that the back-up documentation supporting beat policing is in place, but it really isn't quite that simple. Today's police force is like a juggler asked to juggle with an ever-increasing number of implements. Eventually he gets out of his depth and drops them.
Thirdly the demands on today's Police Officers goes far beyond the simple investigation and detection of crime and the protection of the public. Today the Force becomes involved in the production of such government initiatives as Charter Mark and Performance Indicators and producing strategic plans and many other documents demanded and expected by many outside bodies. Never before have the police been so accountable to politicians and the public alike. This accountability does not extend to beat policing - the success of which cannot be quantified.
Some of the reports quoted above accept that beat policing is desirable but possibly a luxury as Norfolk Chief Constable Ken Williams stated at a meeting of Norfolk Police Authority this year:
"My priority lies in tackling violent crime, burglaries and drug offences. The public are only happy with policing when they see bobbies on the beat walking about aimlessly. I have to balance all this. The public say they want to see more constables on the streets. We have 500 parishes in the county and they all want their own Parish Constables.
"A few decades ago police officers worked seven days a week in the community. Then the modern world caught up with them. They became the subject of 40 hour weeks and service levels and today it would take five constables to carry out the function of one in the past. I can accept, however, that people want the security that patrolling officers bring."
I find myself at odds with the Chief Constable on this point. To my mind beat and community officers provide a vital presence and re-assurance factor and certainly do not just "wander aimlessly."
My comment is backed up by the head teacher of Hethersett Middle School Trevor Atkins who regularly welcomes community officers into his school.
"I cannot over emphasise the importance of police officers such as PC ---- who come into the school whenever they can. He has taught pupils how to play the drums and they all know him. This is a vital link between the children and the police and is one they will remember all their lives and which will colour their feelings. They see PC ------ as a friend and someone to be trusted and who will help them. Take this away and they will grow up suspicious of the police."
This was echoed by the Head Teacher of the High School:
"We have a very good local PC though his time with us is strictly limited. He has always given us support and ideas. He works to influence the teenagers in a positive way in the village."
I was very interested in finding out whether police officers themselves felt that enough consultation was taken and enough notice taken of what the public thought and wanted.
The response was varied. Comments such as
"I can think of no other public organisation which seeks and receives so much feedback." and
"I am sure that the Force usually bears in mind all genuine comments."
were countered by
"No. The Force only draws information from a very small group of people who are not really representative of the general public." and
"Decision and policy making is made by persons behind closed doors who rarely meet the public and regardless of public opinion the will of a few is thrust upon the masses."
Others argue that the matter of having more officers on the beat has very little to do with a lack of resources but a refusal by those who can change the situation to do so. One senior civilian member of staff has become concerned at the amount of time wasted on training seminars on such subjects as grievance procedure and equal opportunity.
"We seem to have lost our way. People out there are crying out for protection on the streets and all we seem to be involved in is a kind of political posturing and courses. I strongly question what we are doing and what we are achieving and whether people are receiving the kind of policing that they deserve and wish for."
Another employee was even more outspoken:
"The attitude of senior officers who have it in their power to do something about the situation seems to be very negative. They will tell you that those days of bobbies on the beat are gone, but those days could return if they really wanted them to. There is no doubt in my mind that many officers should be on the beat where the public want to see them."
So the question arises in my mind that if returning to beat policing is a possibility why is it not being done. The answer is simply that police officers have been moved into other directions and will continue to be moved at the expense of the basic cornerstone policing which has been at the heart of law and order in this country in the past.
This is aptly illustrated by conversation with two more police officers who have serious misgivings about two new concepts introduced to the Force this year.
These two bones of contention have been the introduction of a Crime Line Help Desk at police headquarters in Norwich and a centralised telephone exchange. Both of these have brought numerous adverse comments about the continue lack of personal face to face contact between the police and the public. Neither have a direct bearing on beat policing but many feel that personnel are being taken off the streets to staff these new areas.
The Crime Line Help Desk deals with more minor crimes (these make up a large proportion in the county). It deals with crimes that the planning departments have decided no longer require a police presence such as minor burglaries, car crime etc. The Help Desk is able to give people reporting crimes advice and instant crime numbers for insurance claims, but it takes away the personal touch as one employee pointed out.
"I have a friend who had a video and television stolen. He phoned the police to report this and was told that details would be taken over the phone as police officers were no longer sent to such matters. The next day he was stopped for speeding in a newly restricted rural area. On that day he saw four patrol cars covering the stretch of road in question. He felt let down. When he needed a police officer following his break-in one was not forthcoming, yet when he inadvertently broke the law there were plenty of police officers around."
I wouldn't want to get into the age old public debate about why people are stopped for speeding when police officers should be "out there catching criminals," but the above comment does show the feelings of the public that resources can be ploughed into one area whilst being taken away from an area the public are not happy with.
Those sentiments were echoed in the village by one business person:
"The format is that we phone in an report the breakage (of windows). No- one visits us unless something has actually gone missing."
Another spoke of the limited time available for personal contact:
"Whilst being helpful, I was always under the opinion that there was only a limited amount of time available and any decision or outcome is time controlled."
A number of officers complained to me about the centralised telephone system which now routes most calls through Police Headquarters who then make the decision about who they should be passed onto. It means that a member of the public phoning their local station will now automatically be transferred to Norwich.
"I have had so many people complain that when they live in one of the villages and in the past have been used to phoning their local policemen they now speak to a switchboard operator in Norwich. It is breaking down the relationship between people living in the country and their local officers," one inspector said.
"I have had more complaints about this than anything else in my 20 years service," said another officer.
The above comments suggest to me that the force is not
really considering the wishes of the public when deciding on the style and
contents of policing in the county. So it once again poses the question
"couldn't more police be put on the beat if Norfolk Constabulary
really wanted to" and I believe the answer is yes.
In conclusion I would like to look once again at my original four basic pre-conceptions and discuss whether in light of my research my feelings have changed at all.
My first assumption was that the public is dissatisfied with crime levels.
Whilst it would still be wrong and insulting to suggest that people could ever be satisfied with crime levels, I now feel that the crime levels in Hethersett are as acceptable as it is possible to get. Comments from one parishioner "In a perfect world even one crime is one crime too many," are tempered by the general comment of many people about the majority of crime being petty vandalism - something that has been going on for many many years.
The crime rate in Norfolk has dropped by % over the last five years and as has been stated the crime figures for Hethersett are relatively low. The comments and facts put before me make me realise that the crime-rate in Hethersett is a lot lower than I had anticipated and the feelings are that the introduction of a parish constable scheme in the village will further lower these figures.
My second assumption was that the public in Hethersett is dissatisfied with what they consider to be an inadequate uniformed and visible police presence in the village.
Comments from villagers suggest that they accept that it is no longer possible to have an all-embracing police presence in the village. In addition Inspector Morris says that he cannot justify full-time policing in Hethersett and the Chief Constable has pointed out how changes in working conditions and practices now make it impossible to provide 24-hpur, seven days a week coverage of a village with any fewer than five officers. The days of Dixon of Dock Green and Heartbeat have certainly gone forever.
Nobody I spoke to in the village showed acute concern at the lack of police presence or the level of the crime rate. This surprised me and rather changed my thinking on the subject.
My third assumption was that the public still want more beat patrol officers.
I still believe that many people would like to see a regular presence but accept that this is no longer possible. If the crime-rate in Hethersett took an upward surge I am sure there would be renewed calls for extra policing. The whole situation remains a rather volatile mix of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. The present mix seems to be largely acceptable.
National documentation such as the Cassels Report and Streetwise suggest that beat policing is a good thing. Much of this is theory, however and these very reports do not make suggestions on how a greater presence can be achieved.
My fourth assumption was that the police, with only finite resources, are unable to provide what the public want and expect.
This was the most difficult assumption to unravel. There are really no cut and dried answers. Some members of the Force believe that computerisation and government-led initiatives such as the Charter Mark and Performance Indicators detract from the essence of policing which is crime prevention and detection.
I have already quoted one employee as saying:
"We really are losing our way. People want protection on the Streets,"
This view was echoed in a number of casual conversations, but is countered by those who argue that it is the likes of Charter Marks and Performance Indicators that uphold Norfolk Constabulary's commitment to the public and helps enhance the service.
Norfolk Constabulary is a vastly diverse organisation with many different strands. Policing is not a black and white concept. There are so many nuances and twists and turns in dealing with the public and crime. The demands on the Force today are complex and numerous. My research has led me to believe that whilst an ideal world would see a bobby permanently on the beat in villages such as Hethersett and whilst this is still possible, Norfolk Constabulary no longer wishes to follow this path.
As stated in my research national reports on policing state that beat policing is a desirable part of the law and order process. The reports do not suggest how this can be done and many forces including Norfolk avoid the situation hiding under the umbrella of a lack of funding and resources.
I still believe that more could be done by way of beat policing and I believe that Norfolk Constabulary often pays lip service to the wishes of the community. Sometimes the wishes of the public are not realistic, but sometimes they are reasonable. Whether the Force has got the balance right is probably grounds for more extensive research.
The Force seems to be moving further away from beat policing and I do not think we will ever return to a situation of local officers policing villages regularly. My research has led me to believe that we will see more Specials and Parish Constables or as some people have said "Policing on the cheap."
Following my conversations with individual officers I was certainly of the opinion that some would still be happy to fulfill the role of a village bobby as the following comments show.
"I would love to police a village where I could be part of the community."
"I would swap for that way of life right now."
"It certainly appeals to me. The Heartbeat type of policing is great for villages and I would like that sort of contact with my local bobby."
Others were strongly against the idea:
"I would not be happy with the idea. There would not be enough work to do in the average size Norfolk village."
"Being tied to a village for 37 hours a week would quickly lead to boredom.
"This would not be a viable proposition. It would be impossible on present resources and I don't feel I would be fully occupied."
"Soul destroying. There would be little or no
camaraderie and little contact with your colleagues."
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