Every two weeks Cambridgeshire Police’s Sector Inspector for the Ely area Robin Sissons does an interview with Star Radio which is published online as a podcast. Highlights are also broadcast on the radio. Last week I noticed @StarCambridge inviting questions via twitter. The following questions which I submitted were addressed:
@StarCambridge Does he think it would be useful if his PCSOs had more powers; eg. to issue FPNs for speeding? (Tweet)
Inspector Sissons’ response:
Yeah, I mean this is a long debate really. What you’ve got to remember is that when the PCSO role was first created it was meant to be a role where you communicate with the community, it was eyes and ears and a link between the community and the police. So the more powers you give that officer the less they .. they lose their role, the identity of their role. So yes, personally, I’d like to see PCSOs have a role where they can do speeding, because it’s a priority that the community are always bringing up and saying look we want more action on this and obviously I only have limited resources. Having said that I’m a bit concerned that maybe if they do start doing that they become law enforcers and lose their sort of contact with the community. Hopefully I’ve answered the question saying yes I personally would like it, but I don’t think it will happen because of the role.
I would like to see some of those who are currently PCSOs given more powers, even to the extent of gaining the full powers of a constable. I think this can, practically, be done. Volunteer Special Constables currently have full powers of a constable after 23 day’s training, whereas paid PCSO training in Cambridgeshire lasts six weeks (at least 30 days if it’s week days only). I don’t think that PCSOs are currently giving us the value for money we could obtain if we had officers with more powers. I think that it ought be possible to keep officers with full powers of a constable on the streets, and in contact with the public, through management and clearly defining their roles. I would like to see more police officers in the rank of PC; and more individuals staying as local officers rather than getting rapidly promoted, off the streets, away from the public. We need a “pyramid” structure with a broad base of officers on the streets.
Already the role of PCSO is being used, particularly in Cambridgeshire, as a recruitment route for constables. Particularly in light of that I’d rather put them through training along the lines of that given to Special Constables in the first instance, and get them straight onto the streets with full powers. Just as Special Constables don’t get distracted by other work, because they are not trained, or permitted, to do many of the tasks taken on by regular officers; there is no reason some full time paid officers could not also operate in a similar way.
Where we’ve got excellent people working as PCSOs I think we ought give them the powers they need to effectively police; where we’re paying people who’re not capable of exercising the powers of a constable I think we ought question why we’re paying them, and why they’re on our streets in uniform, at all.
I disagree that these are decisions for the Government. I think that they are now, with some imagination, within the competence of the Chief Constable and Police Authority, and will be well within the scope of the kind of changes an elected police and crime commissioner could stand on a manifesto of introducing, and make happen if elected.
@StarCambridge What effect, if any, has the closure of Ely Magistrates courts had on his work, and justice being seen to be done? (Tweet)
Inspector Sissons’ response:
I think we were all very disappointed when the Magistrates did close. The reason being it has had an impact on my resources, because first of all we used to go across the road to get warrants and now we have to go to Parkside, sorry Cambridge Crown the buildings there and obviously that’s a lot busier court system and we have to book in etc. so its more difficult for my officers there. The other thing is that local people that were going to the court, they tend not to go to Cambridge so that means the Magistrates have to put out a warrant for their arrest which means it is more work for our officers because we have to go and get them, find them, get them, and put them before the courts. So it has had an impact on the local police. I also think it is nice for the local people to see that their local criminals are being dealt with by the magistrates from their local area and you know the localism bill is all about that. Having said that it is the time of financial restraints and you’ve got to justify spending the money and this decision I’m sure wasn’t made lightly and we have to live with the situation we have now… Basically it’s put a bit more work our way, it’s nothing we can’t cope with but we would have preferred if it was kept the same.
I think this answer provides a fascinating insight in to the effects of the court closure. I would like to see more local justice. There is nothing stopping Magistrates occasionally decamping from Cambridge to Ely and holding courts in one of the many public buildings there. This would only be suited for defendants who are not in custody, for whom cells are not required, but for much of the court’s business it would be perfectly practical, and permitted under the current law.
Our courts should be much more open. Court lists (showing upcoming cases), the “Court Register” showing the decisions and sentences ought both be published in real time, and easily searchable and connected to police records of offences so all those interested can easily follow the progress of a case and, crucially, its outcome.
The Inspector has shown one side of the problem; people not turning up in court when summoned to a place many miles away from where they live. There is also the point that those arrested, shipped to Cambridge, then released by the court, find themselves out on the street a long way away from where they were picked up.
Having observed cases there appear to be a lot of situations where people are travelling a long way for court cases; often crossing paths, as people from Cambridge find themselves dealt with elsewhere in the county, and people from quite a long way away are coming into the city.
Justice needs to be seen to be done, and having cases heard, or sentences determined, in courts often more than 30 miles away from where the offence was committed doesn’t help with that.
@StarCambridge What would his views be on having local police priorities set democratically, by cllrs, as happens in Cambridge City? (Tweet)
Inspector Sissons’ response:
I understand that Cambridge City do it slightly different to us, just to explain what we do at the moment is have community panel events which are open events which anyone can come along to and actually voice their concerns and from that we make our local priorities from that. Some people like that because the actual community themselves have a say rather than the councillors. The only trouble is that attendance is always a bit small shall we say, with most of them it is 50-60 people which isn’t a true reflection of all walks of life in the whole community whereas councillors do represent the whole of the community. My personal view – I prefer the way we do it because actually you can have a voice and you don’t have to go through your councillors; but I do see there there is a need for us to liaise with councillors, but there are councillors come to our meetings as well so they do have their say in the broad sort of meeting. So yeah, no, I think personally I prefer the way we do it.
Firstly Inspector Sissons is wrong to suggest that people lose the chance to have their say when councillors set priorities. In Cambridge city the policing item at meetings always has a section where the public are able to ask questions and suggest priorities. Often this is used by representatives of various groups within the city, as well as by individuals. The inspector’s only argument against councillor’s setting the police priorities can easily be overcome, and already has been overcome, in Cambridge.
The key thing is what happens, once lots of ideas have been put forward, who prioritises them and chooses which ones should be adopted. I think the best people for that role are elected councillors; they’re the ones with the democratic legitimacy.
The problem with a vote involving everyone who has turned up is that becomes mob-rule; anyone who can get enough people together (often a small number say 20 or so people from an area where say 30,000 people live) can manipulate the police priorities. The other alternative of having the police make the final decision means they can chose what is easiest for them, rather than what the people living in an area would really like to see tackled.
I think that if we gave more councillors the ability to set the police priorities we would increase people’s interest in who their local councillors are and improve the standard of local councillors. I hope in the near future with increased localism and democracy in a range of areas including both planning and policing we’ll see democracy and local councillors given a much needed boost in terms of quality, openness and relevance.
These meetings are not just about priority setting, but holding the police to account for their performance against the priorities previously set. I think it is councillors who are best placed to do that, and if they’re not happy to push for change at higher levels, such as through the councillors on the police authority, or in future the councillors on the Police and Crime panels and the Police and Crime Commissioner.
- My article on a recent democratic police priority setting meeting in South Cambridge.
- My article on a recent “mob-rule” police priority setting meeting in Sawston, South Cambridgeshire.
@StarCambridge Why do his reports on progress against priorities mention numbers of arrests, but not report sentences handed down by courts? (Tweet)
Inspector Sissons’ response:
A lot of the time the police, we work live time, so we have control over the number of arrests we do and basically that’s done there and then so its easy for us to report on that. The hard thing is that the courts system is always sort of two to three months behind us and then basically people have moved on and they don’t really care what’s happened. So they want the live things, for example the marches this weekend, we’ll be producing the reports on how many people were arrested, but those arrested will probably not be going to the courts system for two months etc. by the time I start reporting that in two to three months time people think I can’t remember the march now, it’s come and gone, so that’s the reason why we do it. It’s very for us to link in. Yeah we do get the reports, and what I’d like to add- with any reports that come in the actual victim is told, though we don’t report it the actual victim is given the update and that’s the important bit for me.
I think justice delayed is justice denied and we need to speed up the courts system. I think many more people should be dealt with on their first appearance in court rather than having their cases deferred.
When meetings designed to hold the police to account hear about numbers of arrests, councillors and the public don’t know if the police arrested the right people and were able to provide evidence leading to a conviction. A key bit of information is missing.
I think there needs to be much more transparency and openness in the courts. The court lists (what’s coming up, who’s due in court and what charges they’re facing) and the court register (what decisions were made, what sentences were imposed) both need to be made more accessible. I should be able to find out when those who’ve committed crimes either against me, near where I live, or in areas I visit, or which I’m simply interested in are coming up. At the moment the doors of the court are open and anyone can walk in and sit in the public gallery, but that on its own is not enough if you can’t find out when particular cases are scheduled. Ideally the information would be made available online with various options for receiving alerts.
The Wigan Magistrates Court report is made available online. I would like to see this kind of thing, done even better, in Cambridgeshire.
Inevitably with more openness, and more material being placed online, it will be easier to find out about people’s encounters with the legal system. It won’t just be those whose cases make the local papers which become findable online. I think society as a whole will need to become more accepting that people can reform (we’ll need a understanding and acceptance of “innocent until proven guilty”). Being arrested, or ending up as a defendant in a court case, isn’t alone something which ought make us think less of anyone. As with so much, what we need is better education in schools.
I am concerned that at the moment the police chose which cases to tip-off the press are coming up in court; and the police decide which sentences to draw attention to.
Thanks to Star Radio reporter Emma Howgego for putting my questions to Inspector Sissions. In case the interview audio disappears I’ve made a copy available.