Archives for April 2015

Should Armed Police Patrol?

Imagine you are shopping in Tesco. A police officer walks in to check up on the store. They say hello to staff, patrol through the store, talk to shoppers and leave. You feel reassured that they are about. Good local policing requires officers to know what’s happening and to keep in touch with local stores.

Now imagine that the officer is armed. He, or she, is carrying a pistol. They say hello to staff, patrol through the store and leave. Do you feel reassured, or do you wonder why they are there? Do you feel the same about talking to an armed officer as an unarmed officer?

My job as is to represent the public and ensure their views are at the heart of their policing. That’s why I’m conducting a survey to understand how people in Carmarthenshire, Powys, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire would like to see armed officers deployed.

Striking the balance between force and consent is always tricky. We need officers who can tackle people who would do us harm – dangerous criminals, terrorists, the violent or deranged. We also need officers who can fix problems before they get that bad – who work through trust, consent and strong relationships with local people to prevent crime.

Luckily the vast, vast majority of police work involves the latter. Dyfed Powys had around 40,000 incidents of crime and antisocial behaviour each year. In 2014 we had only 126 incidents where firearms officers were deployed.

Britain has a long, proud tradition of unarmed policing. That is because we see the police as members of our communities, protecting those communities. They belong to us not to the state. They rely on our support to exercise their powers, which is why local officers are the bedrock of all policing.

Sometimes, though, they need to use force. We have specialist armed officers to tackle those rare – but dangerous – situations where officers need firearms to protect the public.

Pretty much everyone accepts we need some armed officers. The question is, should those officers carry arms on normal duties? Do armed officers change the relationship between the public and the police?

My example above highlights concerns raised in Scotland last year. Armed police were deployed on routine patrols. Faced with criticism in the press, the police decided to withdraw those officers from routine duties. Now they only respond to incidents where firearms are required.

We have 74 firearms officers in Dyfed Powys. At the moment they conduct normal patrolling duties when not responding to incidents. They carry their pistols in holsters when doing this.

You can help me understand how the public see this tricky issue. This survey will inform my discussions with the Chief Constable about how we strike that balance between force and consent.

I want our communities to be the safest in the country. To do that we need to be able to tackle any threat. But we also need to be realistic about those threats and make sure we do not damage the most precious asset of all: the relationship between police and the public.

I look forward to hearing your views. You can find the survey here.

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What does the election mean for police reform?

Labour published their crime and justice pledges last week. We can expect party manifestos in the coming days.

On one level, what the election means for police reform is fairly straight forward. It will determine whether PCCs survive. Labour will abolish them. The Conservatives will keep them.

But look a little further and the answer is less clear. Labour’s plan, insofar as they have one, doesn’t explain what would replace PCCs. It talks about a victims law and odd technical changes to procurement and firearms licenses. But it offers no vision, no purpose to reform that protects people or secures our liberties in an age with less money.

We must govern our police. The question is, how? And particularly, how in the context of falling budgets and the rotten state of local government?

In our democracy we have local, independent police forces. They act as a check on central power, stopping any one force – or the government itself – getting too powerful. That means each force must answer to local, independent oversight. Hence, police and crime commissioners are directly elected by local people.

Whatever you think of them, PCCs go with the grain of recent reform. They are devolution writ large. They take power out of Whitehall, in the same vein as changes in Scotland. And they are directly accountable, like Manchester’s new mayor.

They have financial freedoms which mean they can cross traditional boundaries between organisations. They can make local decisions to cope with falling budgets.

In Dyfed Powys, for example, I have used those freedoms to increase the number of officers, invest more in support for victims of domestic and sexual violence and improve justice for victims with fewer cautions. And I have reduced the overall cost to taxpayers.

If the government had cut police budgets without also reforming the police we would have had just less policing. As it is, we can use reform to deliver more – or better – with smaller budgets.

Britain is still coming to terms with the loss of old certainties. We have less money than we thought. We are less inclined to trust institutions than we were. We expect our services to recognise us a individuals, not numbers. We have access to more information, more quickly than ever. Power is more personal.

Labour have not come up with an answer to meet these changes. So far they propose more central direction – merging police forces, confusing local accountability, directing procurement from London – taking decisions further away and trusting people less.

Theirs are the instincts of the old authoritarian left: what we can’t control, we destroy; what we can control, we throw money at.

A Labour government backed by the SNP, whose authoritarianism already runs rampant in Scotland, would turn back a tide of reform that began before even this coalition Government. They are a backward-looking, reality-denying prospect.

Whether police and crime commissioners stay or go is for Parliament to decide. But if they do, be careful what replaces them.

Strong, clear governance benefits the police as much as the public. Don’t be surprised if what emerges from a Labour government drags the police back into the mire of local government committee-ism. That is Labour’s comfort zone. It is also the graveyard of innovation.

Now is not the time for turning back.

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