Braintree and Witham voices
Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex, spent the evening in the impressive New Rickstones Academy in Witham on Monday May 19, hosting a debate between the community, local policing leaders and members of the Community Safety Partnership for Braintree district.
The PCC was joined by the Chief Executive of Braintree District Council and the Chair of Safer Essex, Nicola Beach, Chief Superintendent Carl O’Malley responsible for policing in the north of the county, and Chief Inspector Richard Melton the District Commander for Braintree and Uttlesford, and his team.
There was a lively local audience at the meeting, including councillors, members of local neighbourhood watch groups, and head teachers of local schools all of whom brought key issues for discussion to the meeting and ensured a dynamic and important debate.
Nick Alston opened the meeting by taking the opportunity to explain the announcements earlier that day about the introduction of a new local policing model for Essex Police. Nick welcomed the plans and the extensive analysis of demand for policing services that had informed the decision making. He hoped the new local policing model it would deliver improved policing as well as necessary savings.
One of the pillars of the PCC’s election campaign and of his Police and Crime Plan for Essex was providing local solutions for local problems, and Nick felt this aspiration was embedded in the Essex Police plans. A full statement from the PCC on the new local policing model can be read here.
The PCC spoke of further developments expected over the summer, including the potential for co-location of policing and community safety teams to ensure more effective and efficient information sharing and problem-solving amongst local public services.
The issue of domestic abuse was high on the agenda at the meeting, with a number of questions from the audience on the subject, and the PCC reassured the audience that this issue ‘could not be higher on the agenda’ for both his office and Essex Police. There are some 80 incidents of domestic abuse reported to police every day in the county compared to 20 burglaries. The force restructure announcements included the creation of specialist domestic abuse teams across Essex. As PCC, Nick chairs the pan-Essex Strategic Domestic Abuse Board, and recent initiatives range from providing more funding for Independent Domestic Violence Advisors to the ‘Cut It Out’ campaign which used PCC New Initiatives Fund money to deliver early domestic abuse intervention and advice training for hairdressers in Braintree. Nick Alston described the issue of domestic abuse as an extremely challenging journey but one in which he hoped significant progress was being made to not only ensure the best policing response, but also build confidence in reporting incidents, and reduce the level and severity of repeat victimisation by earlier intervention and a better understanding of the needs of victims.
Chief Inspector Richard Melton gave a brief overview of crime figures in Braintree, and full details can be seen here. Braintree is one of the largest districts in the UK comprising both urban and rural areas, and therefore presents a range of policing challenges. However, there was cause for celebration as crime has significantly reduced in the last year with 335 less offences overall, including a 17% reduction in burglary which the Police and Crime Commissioner described as ‘remarkable’ considering the complex and persistent nature of this crime. Chief Insp Melton described burglary as extremely intrusive and upsetting to experience, and explained the targeted approach his teams have taken to tackle it, including faster response times to reports, visits to all victims by neighbourhood officers, and targeted crime prevention activity called ‘cocooning’, involving warning neighbours of houses that have been burgled of offences in their area ensuring they are able to take the appropriate measures to secure their homes and remain vigilant.
The Braintree District Commander described how most burglaries are committed by a small number of people and last year his teams successfully arrested one burglar who was responsible for 90 offences. Over the Christmas period, house burglaries spiked to around four each day in the district, and another burglar has been arrested and charged, admitting to over 40 offences already. This prompted a question around the integrity of recording the admission of additional crimes after arrest – commonly known as TIC (taken into consideration) where there might be an incentive for the offender in receiving a lighter sentence for the admissions. Chief Insp Melton and his team reassured the audience that any crimes recorded as TICs required strong corroborative evidence. Chief Insp Melton and Det Insp Al Stevens, who leads the CID team in Braintree, spoke of the professional pride officers experience in bringing prolific burglars to justice and ensuring the harm they cause to victims ceases.
Although serious sexual and violent offences had increased, the District Commander and Insp Mick Couldridge reassured the audience that these numbers remain very low. Braintree district is an extremely safe place to live and work and his team remains committed to keeping it that way. Officers also gave the audience some preventative advice, explaining that most burglaries take place during the day when homes are empty, and burglars will look for vulnerabilities in properties so urged local residents not to provide them with any opportunity to take advantage of that, and report anything suspicious to the police immediately.
A major cause for concern amongst the community was the use of Mini Moto bikes being ridden on footpaths and pavements in residential areas, putting the public and the riders themselves (who rarely wear helmets) at significant risk. Inspector Steve Brewer from the roads policing team explained that although Mino Motos were originally intended as toys, they are now classed as roadworthy vehicles by the DVLA and carry licensing restrictions similar to motorbikes, including proper insurance and the use of helmets. However, these rules are rarely adhered to, presenting complications for policing the problem. One member of the audience had concern at the lack of response from the council regarding putting footpath restrictions in place such as kissing gates or barriers, but it was expressed that this could just result in displacement of the problem to another area and may impact on those using wheelchairs or mobility scooters. Cllr Wendy Schmitt suggested that a previous campaign publicising the fact that a Mini Moto had been crushed following seizure for illegal use had had a preventative impact. Inspector Brewer confirmed that all intelligence regarding their use on footpaths would be used to confiscate vehicles where appropriate which often resulted in a reduction of the problem since the cost of recovering the vehicles often outweighs the cost of buying them. He encouraged residents to continue talking to the police about the issues and keep an ‘ASBO’ diary to record times and details of incidents which would help police with their enquiries.
Sgt Martin Richards confirmed that a summer campaign to educate young people and parents about the dangers of using mini motos had taken place last year and was being considered again this year. He explained in many cases like this the most powerful tool the police and community safety partners have is education, as enforcement can often only provide a short term solution, or displace the problem elsewhere. Both the police and representatives from Braintree district council confirmed their commitment to use the legislation available to them, and would take the issue away for further consideration.
This discussion led to a wider conversation on speeding and other parking offences, which the local community are seeing more of – and in particular around public crossings and school entrances. Again the value of educational campaigns to inform and warn residents and parents was emphasised. The PCC expressed his concern that safe parking and the impact on road safety is a growing concern in the county, with whole new housing developments being built with limited parking availability, and it needs a really joined up approach to tackle this. It was suggested that the Chair of Safer Essex could take this away as an area of discussion at the Safer Essex board, ensuring planning for parking is given due consideration in new developments.
The PCC also responded to a specific question regarding an announcement by the Home Affairs Select Committee on the expansion of powers of Policing and Crime Panels – the body of elected councillors responsible for holding Police and Crime Commissioners to account. The PCC believes that it is critical to have robust debate and challenge around decision making that affects the future of policing and safety in Essex, and all counties, and he is open to the idea of expanding some of the powers of Police and Crime Panels
The value of PCSOs in neighbourhood policing teams was once again clear at the meeting, with many members of the public speaking highly of the service they provide, and expressing concern over a proposed drop in PCSO numbers. The PCC confirmed that currently there were just over 300 PCSOs across the county. However, he stated that PCSOs will remain a critical part of the local policing structure, and recognised the value of the support, visibility and reassurance they provide to local communities. There was some confusion over the issue of match-funded PCSOs, and it was explained that this scheme will no longer continue as the management and deployment of match-funded officers had often been complicated and inefficient. Instead, local authorities now have the option to fully fund PCSOs, and Tendring district council are proposing to fund 10 PCSOs as part of this scheme.
Finally, the Police and Crime Commissioner welcomed Chris Dale, a local business owner and leader of the Witham Industrial Watch to explain its work, which supports over 300 businesses in the Freebournes Road, Crittall Road and Eastways industrial estates. Using 1% of the rateable value from businesses in the BID (Business Improvement District) the Witham Industrial Watch acts on behalf of all businesses in the estate, providing for a comprehensive CCTV system, full time site manager and uses other technology and local knowledge to help prevent crime and identify suspicious vehicles. Chris spoke of the value of local businesses and communities working together to make their areas safer, and quoted a 40% reduction in crime as a result of the work of the Witham Industrial Watch. The PCC hailed the scheme, along with other community watch groups as an excellent example of citizen-led policing and community safety which should be replicated in more areas and settings.
Nick Alston closed the meeting by thanking the police teams and all attendees for everything they continue to do to keep their communities safe, and encouraged those that wanted to remain behind for a cup of tea and further conversation with him and the police officers present, which many members of the audience did.