I attended an Arbury Ward police meeting on the 28th of January 2009 in the Meadows Community Centre.
The session was led by Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) Luke Upcott and Sam Bagshaw. Labour Councillor for Arbury Mike Todd-Jones was present, and in addition six residents had turned up.
I think the fact the Liberal Democrat councillors who lead the city council don’t attend these meetings is one reason attendance is poor. I spoke at the December 2008 North Area Committee suggesting councillors, and council officers attend the Arbury meeting as they do elsewhere in the city. The presence of councillors and officers would enable more effective action to be taken on matters raised. Luke Upcott confirmed he had invited all relevant councillors and officers. When I have previously asked the council about officer attendance at such meetings I was told it was up to the individuals concerned to make personal decision to attend or not, I don’t think that ought be the case.
Other reasons for poor attendance include poor publicity including the fact the meeting had been promoted as an “anti-social behavior” meeting and despite over ten years of new labour that phrase still doesn’t relate in people’s minds with the problems they are experiencing. There is also a lot of confusion about where and how police priorities are set in Cambridge, wildly different answers can be obtained depending on who you ask. This problem is exacerbated by the Liberal Democrat’s general reluctance to exercise the democrat influence over policing available to them.
If the police themselves summarised what was discussed and gave evidence that they had acted on what was said people might see the arrangements functioning and join in.
I started by saying that I had taken the concern raised by PC Ball at the previous Arbury police meeting in October 2008 and raised it in-front of councillors and Sgt. Wragg at the December 2008 North Area Committee suggesting councillors ask the police to improve their communications.
My notes on the last meeting said:
PC Ball reported that it was often frustrating for her to return to Parkside after a shift and find out that there had been calls from residents, including at Kingsway which had come in while she was out on duty but had not been passed onto her. Members of the public pushed her to ask why this was and she said it was due to a lack of local knowledge in the control room in Hinchingbrooke. One resident suggested control room operators should be taken on a “hotspot tour of Cambridge” to familiarise themselves with areas such as Kingsway. All present strongly urged PC Ball to use any routes available to her to make the appropriate people within the police aware of the problems.
At the December 2008 North Area Committee Sgt. Wragg responded when I raised this saying that the effectiveness of communications depended on what else was going on. He reported that the police in the area were going to move to a two channel radio system which would improve things. He largely dismissed the point though – saying that it was not a significant problem.
At the January 2009 meeting we were told that this problem was real, and was being discussed within the police. It does arise due to a lack of knowledge in the Hitchingbrooke control room, there is no mechanism for ensuring that responses are tailored to local problems. We were told the police were actively working to improve that. The police reported that the neighborhood police officers and PCSOs were now carrying Blackberry devices which enabled them to receive emails while they were on patrol. Sam Bagshaw suggested that the communication problems be worked around by people directly emailing, or phoning officers.
I pointed out that the Ecops email footer deters people from contacting individual officers, and suggested that PCSO Bagshaw sought to get that modified to reflect her new advice, she committed to do this, and made a note on a scrap of paper (as usual for Cambridgeshire police they did not have notebooks). I also said direct emailing was only useful for a very small number of people in the know. I suggested the problem needed to be solved so that relevant information called into the non-emergency number was passed to officers while they were out.
Cllr Todd-Jones agreed, he said that there needed to be a solution that worked for calls from the general public.
CCTV at Kingsway
At the last meeting the suggestion that the CCTV at Kingsway would be more use, and cover more areas where youths loiter, if it moved and scanned around on a regular basis. Local residents are certain that youths are aware of the cameras and congregate out of sight of them, something they can do because they rarely move. I said I had taken this item to the North Area Committee too, but no councillors took it up. I had also written to the City Council’s CCTV Manager who is genuinely undertaking an operational review of the CCTV system and has responded to say: “We are reviewing our operational procedures and will seriously consider your suggestion of automatic patrolling”. Cllr Todd-Jones committed to also write to Mr Beaumont to add his support to the automatic scanning.
Mr Beaumont had also told me that he has “very little contact” with the officers covering the Arbury area. I asked why the police didn’t appear to be making as much use as they could of the CCTV available to them. The PCSOs confirmed that they rarely use the CCTV. I noted that the council CCTV operators generally await a police request before they share information with them. I suggested that the council ought perhaps consider changing this policy, and sending images to the police when they were asked to do so by a member of the public, subject to council officer’s consideration that it was appropriate to do so and the privacy implications were being properly balanced.
While discussing CCTV one woman was surprised that all the council’s CCTV was monitored in the same place – in the Guildhall – she had envisaged more local monitoring. She questioned how they could keep an eye on all the cameras.
Other Kingsway points
The effectiveness of the council’s caretakers at Kingsway and elsewhere was questioned. Residents complained that they were not doing what they expected of a council employee, not talking to all other areas of the council and the police as much as they would expect.
Later when discussing giving police powers to civilians, one resident suggested this would be good for the council’s caretakers. I opposed this on the grounds of people not understanding the meaning of a badge giving police powers, the expansion of the police state and risks to damaging the reputation of the police resulting in a loss of respect making policing harder. One member of the public joked he would like to see the caretaker armed with a gun.
Cllr Todd-Jones noted that the council had changed its policy and now did not use live-in caretakers on the grounds of cost. Residents were in favour of having a live-in caretaker.
Cllr Todd-Jones said there was a need for a drastic change in the infrastructure in Kingsway, but that it was likely to be expensive and there was disagreement among residents about what ought be done. He suggested trying to establish a group of interested residents from Kingsway, and the other blocks of flats in the area, he said he would try and get that together. He said that id the council was acting as a good responsible landlord it would have got on and done the job”. He also said that many of the people living in Kingsway needed his support and advocacy, I think this is a key point, we have elderly people, a high turn over of people, and others who are not able and willing to fight for improvements to where they are living themselves. That leaves a lot of work for the remaining individuals. I think there is a need for residents living in neighboring areas and across Cambridge to look at what is tolerated in Kingsway and decide if we are going to accept that situation anywhere in the city.
Residents described intimidating groups of youths in stairwells or blocking paths preventing people getting back into their homes, and suggesting that at times some of their neighbors stay inside their flats due to what is happening outside. Drinking and drug taking in the stairwells and corridors was reported.
There was a suggestion that the City Council’s housing officer could do more, noting that he doesn’t attend community meetings like this one, or others in Kingsway. One resident suggested he needed a “kick up the arse”, others were less colorful with their language but agreed with the sentiment.
Castle Park Car Park
Cllr Todd-Jones asked for an update on the problems before Christmas on the castle park car park behind the houses on Victoria Road. He said he had received representations from residents there. The PCSOs promised to look into that and get back to Cllr Todd-Jones.
I asked about burglary levels, which it was reported in December had doubled compared with the same period last year, ecops emails in January had said there was an ongoing problem.
The police said that a number of arrests had been made that day. They also said that the north area was being given the highest priority by the police with respect to burglary, that they had officers from other parts of the city working with them, some in plain clothes. “Don’t worry, it’s working” said PCSO Upcott.
I questioned why the city wide police priorities set by the community safety partnership included “Dwelling burglary should look to focus on Petersfield Ward”, and asked why Arbury wasn’t being given the same level of attention. The PCSOs were not able to answer.
British Queen – Histon Road
This has been closed, and is now apparently about to re-open in a new guise. One member of the public thought a “Ranch House” for dancing was proposed. All present agreed it would be a good idea for the police to go and have a chat and see what is intended, and if its under new management – just introduce themselves – and they agreed to do this.
Hazlewood and Molewood
A resident from that area said that the area was reasonably quiet then adding – “as far as people trying to murder each other goes”. Generally comments were positive, noting that there had been some increase in nuisance since the CCTV cameras had left – quite a few months ago. There was no immediate clamour for their return, but it was noted that they had been effective when deployed in 2008 (though there was a question of displacement to Martingale Close).
Magistrates issuing a ASBO banning an offender from back gardens in 2008 got criticised for not, according to press reports anyway, mentioning front gardens. The question of Cambridge’s courts being unduly lenient was raised. I related the fact I had observed someone who had assaulted a police officer receive no penalty, just be required to pay £50 compensation to the officer with respect to that offence.
I briefly mentioned Tasers. The PCSOs had no idea of the plans for all front line response police to carry TASERs. PCSO Upcott said: “TASERs are for firearms officers”.
I support police firearms units having access to TASER weapons which they can elect to use as an alternative to firearms in circumstances where they would otherwise use firearms. I said I would prefer to be shot with a TASER than with a gun. However I do not want to live in a country where more police officers than necessary are routinely armed with TASERs. I believe any expansion of TASER use would be damaging to the relationship between the public and the police.
I asked if Sgt. Wragg was itching to get his hands on a TASER (he’s not a response officer so the plan isn’t to arm him with one). The PCSOs said he wasn’t.
Cops with Cameras
The PCSOs said the use of body worn video cameras by police in the city centre had been on a trial basis only, they did not know if the trial had been judged a success and if they would be made permanent and if they would be seen on the streets of Arbury any time soon.
Police Powers for Civilians
Finally we had a short discussion about the introduction of police powers to civilians, starting with a trial at Addenbrooke’s Hospital . Again the PCSOs had no knowledge of this proposed drastic change to policing in Cambridge. I expressed my surprise. PCSO Bagshaw said that she would support anything which would cut crime, but when asked if she thought giving security guards police powers would cut crime she said she didn’t know. There were very varied views, from the man wanting council caretakers to be armed, to me not wanting to expand the police state and risk damaging the reputation of the police. There appeared to be little support for non-police individuals issuing summary justice via fixed penalty tickets. One woman said she would be happy with security staff inside the hospital being given powers, but not parking enforcement staff in the grounds. One person agreed with the chief constable’s position, which is we need a trial in Cambridge, he wasn’t prepared to judge the effectiveness of schemes like this from how they had been run elsewhere in the country. Another woman, who had earlier described herself as being in cloud cuckoo land decided to storm off saying the discussion had got “too political” at this point and slammed the door.
The PCSOs did not express a view when asked on how they thought giving powers such as the ones they have to civilians might affect their role.
I suggested, as I have been doing in a number of places recently, that perhaps expanding events like this to cover all aspects of policing rather than just neighbourhood policing, or just anti-social behaviour might encourage participation.