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A vision for local policing without ‘Bobbies on the Beat’

Following my interview with The Times newspaper reported last week, there has been much debate about the role that “bobbies on the beat’ should play in policing our communities.  I welcome that debate. It is one that needs to continue and develop. Oddly when many feel I should be making the case for what the public ‘want’, expressed as visible policing – bobbies on the beat – I am having to make the case for what I feel we should as citizens be asking for – safer communities and more effective and efficient policing.

The Chair of the National Police Chiefs Council Sara Thornton added to that debate last night at the annual Police Foundation John Harris Memorial Lecture.  Having made the case powerfully that there is no evidence that increasing or decreasing routine patrols has any effect on crime, service delivery to citizens or to feelings of security, she went on to argue that when police patrols focussed on crime hot spots it can be effective, as can offender based policing. I fully agree. But I rather doubt this is what the public think of as ‘bobbies on the beat’.

In a letter I received last week, a former long-serving Essex Police officer with a close knowledge of neighbourhood policing over the decades wrote: “un-targeted foot patrols are a waste of time and an unwise use of the limited resources now available”.

How the Chief Constable uses his or her resources does of course open a further debate about the role of Police and Crime Commissioners. My own view is that this is largely the operational space of the Chief Constable – but I hope and expect the Chief listens to my opinions and ensures his plans are in line with my Police and Crime Plan.

I believe firmly in local policing. Not easy to define but at its heart this means giving local police commanders the freedom and discretion to engage with and police their communities sensitive to the needs of those communities and the opportunities for partnership working that they present to address the local risks and harms. It can’t be just about policing; it has to include engagement and even integration with social care, the mental health trusts, community safety partners and many others.

Local police leaders should engage with their communities and with partners in the ways that are right in that locality, whether through the local council, a mosque, a school or university or community groups. The more the police engage on the terms, and on the ground of the local community rather than on their own terms the more effective it is likely to be. Policing has to be done ‘with’ the community rather than ‘to’ it.

Local policing will include focused retail teams working with shops, town centre teams working with the homeless and street drinkers, youth officers engaged in our schools, officers patrolling our night time areas when bars and clubs are closing. They will engage with communities in a structured way to build and support those vital relationships that deliver community intelligence.

But where are the harms in our society?  Almost every day, the rape of a child is reported to the police in Essex – 361 last year. That is shocking and intolerable. There are 18 house burglaries or attempted burglaries every day in Essex, and 80 domestic abuse incidents requiring a police response.  These, and horrific crimes like child sexual exploitation will not be solved by bobbies on the beat. We need intelligence analysts, detectives with investigative skills, skilled crime scene investigators, safeguarding experts, and many others  to stop these awful crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice.

House burglaries have reduced by 10 per cent each year for the past two years in Essex not through ‘bobbies on the beat’ but through intelligence-led policing, putting officers and PCSOs into areas where police identify burglars are operating. Retail crime teams in several Essex towns have had even more dramatic results.

Our communities have largely changed out of all recognition. How many people even really know their neighbours or those up and down the street or across the village?  Who is at home during the day? How do we all now communicate? Surely more chats happen on Facebook than across garden fences. We simply can’t go back to earlier times, and who would want to when so many awful crimes were simply not talked about? Whether we are talking about the hidden harms of domestic violence, serious sexual violence, the online sexual grooming or radicalisation of our children, or the defrauding of the elderly – for these are the crimes that are increasing rapidly – the front line of policing is typically a front room. Bobbies on the beat offer little, if anything at all, to this crucial work.

We must go with the evidence and stimulate real debate about this important topic. Yes let’s have police patrolling crime and ASB hotspots; yes let’s have focussed local policing working with partners to address community safety and yes let’s have our police much more accessible to their public using modern and effective means. But please let’s focus on what is causing real harm in our communities and be honest and determined to do the very best we can with the resources available.


Nick Alston
Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex

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PFCC for Essex, Kelvedon Park, London Road, Rivenhall, Witham, Essex, CM8 3HB
01245 291600

If your enquiry relates to operational policing or a crime please contact Essex Police

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