Police Authority Questions at Cambridgeshire County Council


Wednesday, November 16th, 2011. 12:57am

On the 18th of October 2011 Cambridgeshire County Councillors had the opportunity to ask questions of Cambridgeshire Police Authority.

In the past this opportunity has been wasted by councillors raising local issues which would have been better raised at local priority setting meetings.

The chair of the Police Authority, Ruth Rogers, was absent without explanation, from the meeting so police authority member Cllr Victor Lucas fielded the questions. I think the absence of the chair of the authority influenced the questions asked, deterring councillors from raising their more local issues. It is notable that the police authority chair can miss these key meetings which hold the authority democratically to account and still maintain a 100% attendance record in terms of what is published by the police authority.

Only three of the sixty-nine councillors had any questions about the strategy and oversight of the county’s policing.

Cllr Samantha Hoy – Domestic Violence

Question

The announcement about restorative justice and the way forward for the police service hasn’t really been very clear.

I’m very concerned about it, particularly with the domestic violence review going on. One of the problems with domestic violence is it is very hard for a victim and a perpetrator to meet. When I met with Cambridge women’s aid the women were saying mediation doesn’t work because they always feel they are being oppressed by the person committing the violence so restorative justice does worry me. With regard to that case I was wondering what the police authority’s thoughts were on that?

Police Authority Response

First of all the application of restorative justice which is [???] in terms of popularity with a lot of the community particularly with parish councils where there has been vandalism they like that approach. But it is only undertaken with the agreement of the victim, if the victim doesn’t want restorative justice to be applied in a particular instance then that’s it, they will carry out the normal process of carrying our a caution or a prosecution whatever the appropriate action will be.

Linking then across to domestic violence, this is something which concerns everybody both in the authority and in the constabulary. We are keen to improve the performance in terms of reducing particularly the re-offending incidence of domestic violence. To that end, rather than having isolated units responding to domestic violence they are setting up a dedicated unit for just domestic violence incidents which will then have immediately on call the expertise who will be able to deal with the case so that the local officer will have someone to refer to straight away. So we are both those things together.

My View

Cambridgeshire police are not being open enough about their use of restorative justice. Policing the county is undergoing an enormous change as the police move to use “restorative justice disposals” in a quarter of the cases in which they would otherwise have arrested people and taken them to a police station. I have raised this lack of openness at Cambridge’s area committees and via a public question at the police authority.

I note the authority’s response did not address the general concern that the police have not been clear about what they are doing. Not only are the police not telling the public what they’re up to, they’ve not even been telling the police authority. The police authority certainly didn’t make the decision on this key aspect of the strategy for policing the county.

I think the police’s current position of considering any offence could potentially be considered for a restorative justice disposal is wrong. In the case of domestic violence our current systems are designed to separate the decision for prosecuting an offender from the complainant; prosecutions can and do proceed without the co-operation or support from the victim. The reason for this is so that offenders can still be brought to justice even if after the event the complainant decides they do not want to prosecute. I think that taking the decision out of the complainant’s hands is a good thing as that means that they cannot be pressurised to “drop the charges”, feel compelled to do so out of loyalty to the offender. (A complainant can always make an argument that a case ought be dropped, or can give a statement to the court explaining any change in circumstances).

This system which has evolved over time is at risk of being thrown away by the Cambridgeshire Police restorative justice experiment. We may now see domestic violence victims being asked if they will agree to a restorative justice disposal after having made a complaint and have the police “dispose” of the matter in the home within the hour. I think it ought be the police officer who decides what action to take in these cases. At the moment due to the lack of openness by the police I think there may also be a factor of surprise and confusion when a victim is asked to decide if a restorative justice disposal is appropriate; I think that’s a question many of those making complaints won’t be expecting.

I call Cambridgeshire police’s use of restorative justice an experiment, as the police themselves do, as restorative justice has not been tried at this scale, in this manner before. I do want to see an experiment done; I am eager to see the results of Cambridgeshire’s trial and hope it will result in reduced reoffending and keeping some people, particularly children who’ve committed minor crimes, out of the larger criminal justice system. I would have liked though to see serious crimes excluded from the possibility of being dealt with by a restorative justice disposal.

In the cases of the most minor crimes, eg. children stealing from family members, I would prefer if there was less of pressure on police officers to formally record such crimes, make a detection and dispose of the case, in some cases I think the right thing is for no further police action to be taken once, for example an officer has explained what’s wrong and the consequences of doing it again. In the case of very minor scuffles between school children for example police officers ought be able to deem something too trivial for further police involvement and pass it to the school and/or parents.

Cllr Steve Tierney – Phone Answering

Question

I would like to raise the issue that there have been some concerns about the way the 999 service has performed, both with emergency and non-emergency calls. I wonder if you would care to comment whether that has been resolved and what measures are being taken to monitor the delivery of service to make sure that it is delivering the service to people.

Police Authority Response

With regard to the 999 and 101 calls. The 999 performance is extremely good in Cambridgeshire, that has not been affected at all. It was the 101 calls which started in June and alongside the 0345 number. The combination of introducing that new technology to deal with those which was part of the cost saving measures within the constabulary in order to try to more automate the response to the routine calls, the non-emergency calls, they admit they went too far and now they’ve gone the other way. This was looked at by a scrutiny committee of the police authority and we wanted to know what they were intending to do to address this problem, and already as a result of reviewing staffing of that and how it is processed and how the cover is provided has resulted in significant improvements in the past two months we are almost back to where we were before and continuing to improve. I hope that addresses that.

My View

I have written an article on the problems Cambridgeshire police have been having with their phone systems.

I think the performance, especially of the 999 system, is critical; calls must be answered quickly.

The police authority representative Cllr Lucas ought to have known that he was wrong to say 999 performance had not been affected. p18 of the performance report to the 12th September 2011 Police Authority Scrutiny Committee, a committee Cllr Lucas chaired, shows a drop in the service level provided on 999 when the problems with the non-emergency number were experienced.

The part of the question about monitoring the service was not addressed. I am unimpressed with the quality of statistics on call answering provided to the police authority. They are not given information which lets them see how many non-emergency calls took more than say 5 minutes to answer; or how many 999 calls took more than 30 seconds or a minute to answer. Often at local police priority setting meetings people complain about such long waits on the phone to the police, but all the statistics show is the fraction of calls for which the answering time meets the “service level” (answered 10 seconds for 999). What we don’t see is the full distribution of call lengths showing how many people were waiting for excessively long times before having their calls answered (or even giving up).

Cllr Tariq Sadiq – Police Commissioners

Question

I’d like to ask a question about the police and crime commissioner elections, whether any analysis has been done on how the elections will be managed and what the cost of the elections might be.

Police Authority Response

Just I think I’d better say the elections are now going to be in November next year. This will be a stand alone election unless we have an unexpected general election. There are no other elections planned to be taking place at that time. The Government believes that the one hundred and fifty million pounds which it will cost to run that election is worth it in terms of increasing the accountability for the constabulary being much closer to the community. It will be interesting to see what candidates come up for that election and I’m sure that many of you will have read about the influx of colonels who are expected to be standing in Kent. I have since been approached by a clutch of colonels in Cambridgeshire about the opportunity to become Police and Crime Commissioner. I can reassure the council that as far as I know there are no former naval captains in Cambridgeshire standing.

My View

This question appears to have been taken from a Labour party circular as an almost identical set of questions was asked at Cambridge City Council’s full council. In fact a much better answer was provided at the city council, who were told the cost for elections in the Cambridgeshire police force area would be ~£400K and the East Cambridgeshire District Council chief executive is to be the returning officer.

The comment about former naval captains refers to the fact that Police Authority representative Cllr Lucas who was providing the answer retired from the navy at the rank of Captain. Cllr Lucas is in any case barred from standing as a member of the current Police Authority (S65(4)(a) Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011).

I think there are some big risks with Police and Crime Commissioners, not least through centralising power and responsibility in one person. I’d rather see existing elected representatives overseeing policing, crime and justice in the county. This could be at all levels, expanding the councillors setting local police priorities; district councils taking a role in co-ordinating their local crime and justice related services, and a cabinet member at the county council taking on the strategic role. The leader of the County Council could take on the overall responsibility (as the Mayor does in London), raising the profile and relevance of the role which I think would strengthen democracy. A commissioner would be able to, through their policing plan, empower county, district and maybe even parish and town councillors (though in the latter case many councillors are unelected, and the councils vary greatly so that needs to be taken into account).

As for expense I note the current Police Authorities are expensive too; in Cambridgeshire ours costs £1m per year, with the clerk alone taking home ~£100K a year for servicing the committee. I would hope that even with the costs of elections, overall the costs of police and crime scrutiny would remain about the same as they are now.

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