I observed the setting of the North Cambridge police priorities on the 22nd of September 2011.
- The bail hostel at 222 Victoria Road and the traveller site on Fen Road were identified as the root sources of criminality in the area and the police were asked to focus their efforts on them.
Democratically Setting Police Priorities
The first policing item raised during the meeting came from Arbury councillor Carina O’Reilly as she drew attention to my request for a correction to the minutes of the previous meeting which noted a resident (me) had made a contribution during the open forum, recorded as:
Noted that he was impressed with the Chair declaring the police priorities at the last meeting.
My requested correction from “impressed” to “unimpressed” was accepted by the committee. The chair Cllr Nimmo-Smith stated that he didn’t mind being considered unimpressive by certain people. Cllr Nimmo-Smith was acting a bit like a stand-up comedian, strolling around with a hand-held microphone between tables of councillors and members of the public, and his retort raised a couple of laughs.
It is unusual for a member of the public’s concern about the way their contribution has been minuted to be taken into account by Cambridge City Council, it was only by being unusually persistent and through the helpful intervention of my ward councillor that I was able to get this change made.
The background to this exchange is that with the exception of the last two North Area committee meetings over the last few years local policing priorities in Cambridge have been set democratically by councillors, and councillors have been able to hold the police to account for their performance against the priorities they set. I think this way of working has lots of potential to ensure that the police are working on things which matter to local people; and where there are things which are causing problems locally councillors can find out from the police what problems are being faced and help address them. I think that Cllr Nimmo-Smith’s decision to ditch democracy, despite being elected as a Liberal *Democrat*, is terrible.
When it came to the finalising of the latest policing priorities Cllr Nimmo-Smith again sought to assert what he thought were the priorities which had emerged from the discussion and claim that these were to be considered those adopted by the committee. There were a number of objections when he sought to do this on the 22nd of September, which prompted him to call for a vote of all those present – council officers, councillors and members of the public. Despite heckles of “Mob Rule” from me, raised eye-brows of disapproval from Liberal Democrat Cllr McGovern and opposition from Arbury Labour councillor Mike Todd-Jones a proper vote of the councillors on the committee was not held. The vote which was held was not counted, there was no call for “any against” and many did not vote in favour.
I have since raised the loss of democracy within this element of the North Area committee’s proceedings at the council’s central Strategy and Resources committee where Cllr Nimmo-Smtih ask the council to set some over-arching principles which ought apply to police priority setting at area committees.
After the meeting I spoke to Cllr Nimmo-Smith explaining to him how important I thought running the committee democratically was. I asked him if he would change the rules if a mob really did turn up when the police priorities were being set in the future. Cllr Nimmo-Smith responded to seek clarification that what I was seeking was a vote in which I could not take part, he appeared surprised that was what I was calling for. He also admitted that he had succumbed to police pressure and that it was the police who didn’t want a vote of councillors, but of all comers. I think we need to elect stronger councillors who are willing and able to stand up for the principles they have stood for election on the back of.
I think its clear the police are uncomfortable and unhappy with democratically set police priorities; they don’t like accountability, especially at the very local level. It is, rightly, hard for them to justify ignoring the will of the elected representatives of residents, so they’d rather such a robust system was not in-place. Cambridgeshire Police’s engagement manager Mr Fuller, who was at the meeting, has told me that one reason police constables don’t like democratically set priorities is that they have taken an oath of allegiance to the monarch. Quite what they are thinking I don’t know, but it is clearly bananas.
Policing priorities, along with policing guidelines, strategies, budgets and the law itself as set by democratically elected representatives do not in my view conflict at all with the personal responsibilities of those holding the office of constable, or the constable’s oath. We rely on constables to fairly apply the law, it is up to them entirely who they stop, arrest, investigate etc. and they have to be able to justify their actions. While hard to precisely define it is very clear to me what constitutes an operational policing question (which is a matter for constables alone) and questions of policy and strategy which it is right for elected representatives to get involved in or determine.
Despite local police priorities having been set democratically for a number of years it is still a regular occurrence at priority setting meetings for a councillor to ask what the effect of setting priorities is. This is something the council and police ought make clearer, however councillors could look at the precedents set over the last couple of years to answer the question for themselves. One effect of setting a priority is increased reporting and accountability; the police will have to explain to councillors what they have done in respect to a certain priority at the next meeting. This often provides an increased insight into the problem and allows councillors to question approaches being taken on the basis of a more detailed understanding of what’s actually being done (if anything). Another key impact is the increased weight given to officers “bidding” for manpower and resources when then police are setting their own internal priorities for the day or fortnight, either within a neighbourhood team or on a broader divisional level. The North Area committee have been told, for example, that when burglary has been prioritised in the area it has been possible to get specialist firearms and dog officers to patrol the area if not required elsewhere for their specialist skills. A further impact comes in influencing other bodies with influence over local policing such as the Community Safety Partnership and the Police Authority, who would ideally take into account what priorities were being set locally when performing their functions. I’ve called for the influence to be spread further too, I have suggested magistrates ought be kept informed of what the local democratically set priorities are so they can use them a factor they can take into account when making decisions on sentencing.
Police Authority Comment
Cllr Wilkins, who is a member of Cambrigeshire Police Authority as well as a member of the North Area Committee said a few words about Elected Police and Crime Commissioners, Police and Crime Panels and the various changes in policing.
Cllr Wilkins drew attention to the authority’s current priorities of:
- delivery of in-budget policing
- monitoring of police performance
- maintaining number of operational hours of frontline staff
Cllr Ward asked if a typical police shift was still, as it had been when he’d shadowed officers : “go out, attend an incident, do four hours paperwork, go back out, attend another incident, do another four hours paperwork, end of shift”. Cllr Wilkins didn’t explicitly say “yes” but he did say the police were trying to use more technology to break this pattern.
Presentation from Sgt. Wragg
Sgt. Wragg introduced himself as the North Neighbourhood Sergeant.
He started by talking about prostitution on Histon Road, blaming it in part on sensationalist media reporting. He said the primary tactic being used was “dispersals” and noted it was also a West/Central priority (though that committee have asked for no action to be taken against the women). Sgt. Wragg noted the problem had moved further down the road, out of the city, towards the squash club and Belmore close.
A Belmore close resident was present and praised the police for their response to the shift and reported the problem there has improved.
Moving to other matters, Sgt. Wragg said the police were getting calls about children playing Manhunt, Sgt. Wragg clarified his view, that I agree with, that playing Manhunt wasn’t a crime and not something for the police to get involved in.
Sgt. Wragg commented briefly on some drugs warrents, where officers also looked for stolen property and on burglary levels, which were historically very low, with a small number in Molewood/Hazelwood close.
On the previously set arson priority, set following bin fires in the area, five arrests and seven visits to children and their parents were reported.
Further visits to talk to children thought to be involved were to come. Cllr Price asked why there was a delay, and was told the police and fire service couldn’t just go into schools to talk to children but it there were protocols to be followed and the meetings had to be arranged with the school and parents and this took time.
The fire service, and a fire officer in a car, have been touring the area stopping to talk to youths about fire setting.
I asked about the police report which had suggested dealing with fires on the site was a potential way in for the police to talk to people living there about a wider range of matters.
Sgt. Wragg explained the fires, which have been causing a danger to the A14, are due to “commercial activity” people running a waste disposal service which involves them taking the rubbish away and burning it. It appears this is something many of those living on the site want dealt with.
Shirley School Parking
Sgt Wragg defended the policy of not issuing tickets to those committing offences when dropping their children off at school, saying “school is an emotive issue for parents”.
222 Victoria Road
The committee was told by Sgt. Wragg that the new management had had difficulties getting to grips with the hostel. He said the new management were short of staff and money but had a full complement of residents. He described a “makeover” which has been proposed to reduce the number of beds and use the hostel to do more intensive work with fewer people. (I’ve made a FOI request for more details).
For the priority discussion the councillors and the public split into tables, one for each ward. There were only one or two members of the public on each table.
On the Arbury table we identified the 222 Victoria Road Hostel as the number one cause of many problems in the ward. As well as prostitution which has been a priority for some time, urination on people’s property, fighting and rowdiness on the streets were also discussed. The date of time of a meeting with hostel management, the police, and local residents was given, but it turned out to be wrong.
West Chesterton councillors decided the top issue in their ward was adults cycling on the pavement on Gilbert Road. I thought this was an odd thing to raise, not least as they appeared to think it acceptable for children to ride on the pavement.
Kings Hedges councillors and residents asked for mapping of crime to be included the next police report, they also asked for better communication by the police and for them to make it easier to report problems. A resident reported that they had asked the police about starting a neighbourhood watch group only to be told this wasn’t something the police did (it is, the member of police staff responsible was present at the meeting and was able to take her details to get in touch).
East Chesterton’s key matters were Fen Road related problems included speeding and bad driving, fires, as well as parking at the new Shirley school site.
The meeting’s draft minutes record:
On a show of hands around the room, the following three Neighbourhood Policing priorities were agreed for the next reporting period:
- Prevention of arson
- 222 Victoria Rd Hostel – improved management engagement
- New Shirley School – parking problems
It strikes me that if “improved management engagement” is the formally set priority (not that I heard that phrase mentioned at the meeting) it would be good to invite the management to the meeting where councillors hold the police, and their own officers, to account for performance against that priority.
I was able to note that the update on Restorative Justice which the last committee were told was available to members was out of date at the time it was provided. Cllr McGovern defended the council saying it was probably current when it was provided to the council, although out of date by the time it reached councillors. His comments revealed the information was not fresh and up to date from the police as might have been assumed by those at the previous meeting, or reading the minutes, but simply something on the subject someone in the council had found.