Improving the Mechanism for Setting Police Priorities in Cambridge

I met with John Fuller, Community Engagement Officer, Cambridgeshire Police and Paul Griffin Strategy Officer (Community Safety) of Cambridge City Council at the Council offices on Regent Street in Cambridge this afternoon.

This meeting was idea of the chair of North Area Committee meeting, who decided to ask me to attend it as a response (punishment? attempt to silence me?) to my attempts to use the Area Committee over the last year to make suggestions for improving the policing of North Cambridge.

As a result of this meeting I am hoping for:

  • Much better publicising of the policing agenda item of the City/County council joint Area Committees, by the City Council, Police, and Police Authority
  • Improvements to the neigbourhood profile document which provides the information which councillors use as a basis for setting police priorities. A better process for incorporating relevant outcomes from “feeder” community engagement events, a helicopter log, and input from the CCTV manager are possibilities. We also discussed mapping
  • Better publicity of the city wide police priorities.
  • Answers to my questions to the police on the legality of the current stop and account process and associated record keeping, along with information on what is to happen when the current trial period for not using stop and account forms ends

John Fuller explained to me that prior to the current government the Police Authority were responsible for running police community engagement forums; the current system of Neighbourhood Panels in Cambridgeshire, and Area Committees setting police priorities in the City of Cambridge came about as the police were compelled by central government to hold consultative meetings with the public and it was decided that the simplest way of doing this was to add the item to the Area Committees. I noted this has the significant advantage of giving democratic credibility and authority to the police priorities decided, which is greatly preferable to the mob rule which could reign at public open meetings. As it is not a dedicated meeting though, the area committees have not been particularly conducive to getting members of the public to attend specifically for the policing item. By setting a time for the policing item, and holding it first this may well have been solved for the next North Area committee meeting. It should be noted that this was decided by a public vote at the last North Area Committee, and Cllr Blair spoke against the improvement (without giving a counter argument).

We discussed Mr Griffin’s memo on setting police priorities in Cambridge which had been produced in response to a question I had asked at a previous North Area Committee meeting. I asked if the memo could be agreed by the police and made public and was told that it was already agreed by the police as it had been agreed by Mr Fuller. This showed me that while there is reasonable collaboration and consistency between council officers and police administrators, but it it the police officers and PCSOs who don’t have a grasp of how the system of setting police priorities works, and these are the people representing the police at the North Area Committee, in the press, and at community engagement events.

We discussed the contents of the North Area Policing page of Cambridgeshire’s police website – which refers to a “panel meeting”, something which both the police administrator and council officer I was with were denying existed, and even claimed was a term not used in the City of Cambridge. The priorities listed on that page were nine months old, and the latest neighbourhood profile was not provided. There was no mention of the role of the Area Committees. Similarly we discussed the contents of the council’s webpages giving information on Area Committees, none of which mention the policing agenda item. Mr Fuller and Mr Griffin agreed to try and get their organisations respective websites updated, and improved to make clear the role of the Area Committees.

We briefly discussed the poor quality of minuting of the last north area committee, particularly the Orwellian changing of the name of the agenda item from the clear “Neighbourhood Policing” to “Safer Neighbourhoods”, I put forward my view that this was a step backwards in terms of clarity and as far as I could tell it was opposed by councillors. Mr Griffin suggested only one councillor had opposed the change of name.

Next we turned to the neighbourhood profiles, which have improved a lot recently, and we discussed improving them further so that councillors and the public can fulfill their role in the process of setting police priorities from a more informed position.
*I welcomed the improved manner in which the outcomes from community engagement meetings (eg. Meetings with the polish community, Antisocial behaviour meetings, Council Tenant’s meetings etc.) were being included in the profiles, we discussed how this could be improved. Input to the profile will be sought from both council staff and police officers / PCSOs at the meetings.
*Mapping; I noted the decline in the use of mapping in the profiles, Mr Fuller said this was as a result of requests by councillors for less paperwork and a slimmer profile document!. I suggested if I was being cynical it could have been removed so it can be reintroduced with great fanfare as a result of the current national government policy to produce crime maps. I also noted that I had found the maps of use / interest, reassuring me that the police were at least aware of some problems in my area.
*Helicopter – I suggested the inclusion of a Helicopter log, or some explanation of what I think is quite excessive use of the Police Helicopter above North Cambridge. Mr Fuller’s response was quite a surprise – he told me there were lots of visits by VIPs to Cambridge and these were monitored by the Police Helicopter, often from afar. ie. the Helicopter would be monitoring say Prince Charles visiting the University but would make sure Charles was not disturbed by the noise by sitting over my house. Mr Fuller claimed the helicopter was “capable of reading a book from a mile away”. I noted my particular concern that the helicopter was being used every time someone ran into the Histon Road cemetery to get away from the police, and it often appeared to be an overreaction to the scale of the problem. I refereed to a Police Camera Action or similar program in which I had seen the Cambridgeshire helicopter being used to investigate reports of youths trying the locks on garages. While we were discussing the helicopter Mr Fuller said he felt it was a reassuring presence when it was hovering above the city, I replied that I looked at it and thought of how much money it was burning up and questioned if it really needed to be there; noting the Midsummer Fair of last year when it was above Midsummer Common for most of the day despite a huge police presence on the ground and lots of portable CCTV covering practically the entire area.
*CCTV, using the example of Martingale close I suggested the CCTV manager be invited to contribute to the production of the neighborhood profiles where appropriate. This was agreed, though Mr Fuller didn’t think there would be many occasions where the CCTV manager would have something novel to add.

We also discussed the interaction of the democratically set police priorities with higher level city wide priorities and lower level shorter term priorities. I put forward my preferred idea that as the only local priorities with a democratic mandate those set by the area committees should stand apart from those others set by the police themselves. I noted an email I had received from my local councillor – Mike Todd Jones in which he had said:

Police priorities – seems unnecessarily complicated – ward/sector/city-wide + fortnightly/monthly/quarterly?

I explained how having voted to remove burglary as a priority at the last North Area Committee meeting councillors were now defending that as they claimed burglary had become a city wide police priority. I asked where these city-wide priorities were published, and suggested that they be brought to each Area Committee meeting; this was dismissed as unnecessary as apparently all councillors are made aware of them! However I can’t find out what they are now.

I also asked if the date of the Neigbourhood Action Group(NAG) to which the priorities agreed at the Area Committee will be sent could be published, and if the NAG could report back to the area committee to say if the priorities had been accepted, and if not, why not. I was told NAGs already reported back to Area Committees, though this is something I have not seen happen in over a year of closely monitoring Cambridge’s North Area committee.

Following the meeting I wrote to the Police Authority via their website suggestions form to ask them to advertise the Police Priority setting role of the Area Committees in Cambridge City. Mr Fuller said he would also seek to see the Area Committees mentioned on the Police Authority site.

Mr Griffin was keen on keeping the discussion on the mechanism of setting the police priorities at the Area Committees, Mr Fuller however at the end of the meeting decided to follow up on another point I had raised in advance – the failure of the police to answer my questions about the operation of stop and account in Cambridge. I am not convinced the current procedure is legal, and feel keeping records indefinitely is excessive. He agreed to follow this up with the relevant police officer.

One response to “Improving the Mechanism for Setting Police Priorities in Cambridge”

  1. During the evening following the meeting I wrote to Mr Fuller, enclosing the response I had received on the subject of stop and account from Mr Hill of the Police.

    Mr Fuller,

    Below is the email which I received from Jeff Hill of the Police in response to my questions about the way stop and account / encounters are handled in Cambridgeshire.

    As you can see he has not explained how the new procedure is compliant with the law, he has not justified, or even confirmed, keeping records indefinitely, and has made no comment on the appropriateness of justifying stop and account on a trivial basis such as wearing gloves, or on its use against children by plain clothes officers.

    At Cambridge City Council’s North Area committee meeting on the 17th of April 2008 Sector Inspector Jon Hutchinson told the meeting that the “All Stops” or “Encounter” form was no longer used in Cambridge.

    PCSO Streeter confirmed to a meeting at the Meadows community centre, Arbury, Cambridge on the 22nd of April that the stop and account form had been discontinued in Cambridge, except if the person being stopped requests a form. He said that unless the full form is requested all that the person being asked to account for their actions will receive is the number of the officer who stopped them.

    It is in my view unlikley that either the PCSOs version, or the version given by Jeff Hill is compliant with PACE code A section 4.17 which requires the following to be part of the record: (i) the date, time and place of the encounter ; (ii) if the person is in a vehicle, the registration number ; (iii) the reason why the officer questioned that person; (iv) a note of the person’s self-defined ethnic background;(v) the outcome of the encounter. Section 4.12 of PACE code A states: “When an officer requests a person in a public place to account for themselves, i.e. their actions, behaviour, presence in an area or possession of anything, a record of the encounter must be completed at the time and a copy given to the person who has been questioned. The record must identify the name of the officer who has made the stop and conducted the encounter”

    My concern that the current procedure is not compliant with the law has not been dealt with, I expect and hope the current procedure is legal and would be very surprised if it was not given that similar trials are taking place in a wide range of places across the country.

    On the subject of how long the information is held I am not happy with the response from Jeff Hill. The Management of Police Information Guidance he refers to states:

    “The type and amount of information held on an individual must not be excessive and must be proportionate to the risk they pose to the community;”

    What risk do those who’ve been stopped in North Cambridge for looking over fences, wearing gloves or wearing hoods pose to the community, how is keeping paper records of such stop and account events for 10 years (as stated by Sgt. Wragg to the Cambridge City Council’s North Area Committee), and keeping the electronic record for an unspecified period of time not excessive?

    I found it shocking when there was a national debate on whether the police should be able to “stop and account” people for no reason that in North Cambridge plain clothes police were stopping schoolchildren on their way home from school, with the reason for the stop being given as “wearing gloves” or “wearing a hat”.

    Police stopping people, asking them to account for their actions appears to me to be a really common way for people to come into contact with the police, so I think that ensuring that the process is properly handled is critical to maintaining a positive impression of the police in the eyes of the public.

    Finally I was angered by your suggestion that I had been using the North Area Committee meeting to raise a personal / individual point by asking questions on Stop and Account at the meeting. I do have personal experience of being stopped by the police and being asked to account for my actions; however I brought it to the area committee only after becoming convinced that there were widespread problems with the way the procedure was being handled and latterly having seen the issue being bought up repeatedly at community meetings in the North Area.

    I feel these questions on the stop and account procedure are straightforward and ought be answered on the police’s website. I have sought improvements but the police’s response has been to simply remove all mention of stop and account / encounters from the stop and search page, although it still links to a now inaccurate leaflet.

    The trial is presumably shortly going to come to an end; making the timely question now – who will review the results and make a decision as to if the form is to be permanently discontinued?

    Richard Taylor

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