My first two years as Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex
I’ve now spent almost two busy, invigorating, eye-opening years as Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex. As we approach the two year anniversary, I believe it’s a good time to take stock and ask the fundamental question: are PCCs making a difference in helping to keep our communities safe and ensuring our police force is as efficient and effective as it can be?
People will rightly make up their own minds, and perhaps the single most important feature of the PCC role is that it is an elected post. If residents don’t think I’m doing a good job, they can vote me out. And if they think I am, they can vote for me. This is a radical difference from the previous arrangements, where the former Police Authorities scrutinised police performance and finance largely out of public sight and with no direct electoral mandate or accountability to local people.
Since becoming PCC, I have held around 50 public meetings, in all parts of our county, enabling people to have their say about crime and Anti-Social Behaviour directly with senior Essex Police officers and with me as the bridge between communities and the police. The centrepiece of our meeting schedule is the Essex Police Challenge where, four times a year, the public and I ask questions of Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh in a Question Time style format. The event is recorded and the videos published on my website have been watched by thousands of people extending the range of the audience. This is a brand new opportunity for people to engage with the leaders of their police force.
I’m committed to openness and transparency, and my office has put more information about crime and police performance into the public domain than ever before. To complement detailed briefings for my public meetings, I also publish regular information about crime trends across the county on my website.
We’ve used money seized from criminals under the Proceeds of Crime Act and from my New Initiatives Fund to create the Essex Community Messaging scheme, which will ensure a faster two-way flow of information between police and local people. Everyone in Essex can sign up and receive information directly via email, text or voice message. Essex Community Messaging is still in its infancy, but it’s working well and has huge potential.
I firmly believe that we should let people know what’s going on in their area, so that they can take an active part in helping keep their communities safe – even through as simple a task as informing the police of a person behaving suspiciously.
In addition, as part of my scrutiny role, I am actively involved in the plans to improve services such as 999 and the non-emergency 101 number. At every public meeting, I hear stories of individuals who’ve received a poor 101 service, and I have fed those observations directly into the Chief Constable and senior managers. Plans are now being developed to modernise and improve all those interactions between the public and police, but in the meantime people must continue to report crime to police.
I have also shone light on police misconduct, by publishing a quarterly report into all police officer and police staff disciplinary cases. In the past, across the country, police discipline was carried out very much behind closed doors, and it was rare for the press and public to learn of cases. I believe this lack of transparency has been a factor in some of the public disquiet about police integrity that we have seen in national newspaper reports. As our quarterly reports show, the Chief Constable expects his officers and staff to act with a high degree of professionalism. The vast majority of police officers and staff behave exceptionally, meeting the demands of a 24/7 emergency service tirelessly and enthusiastically. By publishing details of those rare misconduct cases though, we can demonstrate that where professional standards have been breached, Essex Police will take firm and decisive action. Action which ultimately is the interests of the people we all serve: the residents of Essex.
One of my first decisions as PCC was to publish a Police and Crime Plan for Essex in which I abolished specific performance targets for Essex Police, replacing them with the aspiration to reduce all crime. As I testified to the Public Administration Select Committee in November 2013, it is clear to me that the setting of rigid performance targets can have unintended and damaging consequences, and we have seen this in the NHS, in schools, in police forces and in many other organisations.
The latest figures show that house burglary, a traumatic crime for victims, is down by almost 10% comparing the last 12 months with the previous year. There have been 779 fewer victims of burglary in our county, and this outstanding result has been delivered by Essex Police’s Operation Insight in the absence of a specific performance target. I will go further and state that because the tactics of Operation Insight rely on rapid, accurate, intelligence about where burglaries are taking place, that reduction may not have been achieved if I had imposed a rigid performance target with its likely unintended consequences on the force.
I am delighted and reassured that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has found that Essex Police is one of the best forces in the country for recording crime in an accurate and ethical fashion.
One of my guiding principles is that Essex Police must act at all times to reduce harm, concentrating first on reducing or preventing the most serious harm to victims. On becoming PCC, I was aware that the force had been heavily criticised in relation to several domestic homicides, where women had been murdered by their former partners, and a child murdered by her father. It was clear to me that a fresh focus was needed and I decided to make domestic abuse the only specific crime type that would be an area of focus in the Police and Crime Plan for Essex.
The “and Crime” part of my role authorises me to work with all the agencies and organisations who can play a part in preventing crime and harm from occurring in the first place. To address the root problems of domestic abuse we need close working between police and partner agencies, and we also need to change attitudes in society towards domestic abuse.
I chair the pan-Essex Domestic Abuse Strategic Board, enhancing the flow of information and the quality of partnership working between Essex Police, criminal justice agencies, the Crown Prosecution Service, councils, social care, probation services, and healthcare professionals. The board is also the mechanism for addressing any blockages which may be preventing the timely sharing of information and effective joint working between agencies. We are making progress.
In January 2014, we secured Home Office funding of £440,000 to Essex and Kent Police towards the cost of body worn cameras. Essex Police is now equipping its officers who attend domestic abuse incidents with these cameras so objective evidence of harm can be captured immediately and automatically. We are working with the new national College of Policing to evaluate the results of this initiative in a rigorous, scientific, manner.
I am delighted that we’ve been able to provide £260,000 to help fund and bring together a number of different agencies to expand the Independent Domestic Violence Advocate (IDVA) service for victims of domestic abuse. The IDVAs play a crucial role in supporting victims, ideally intervening at an early enough stage to prevent harm from occurring in the future. From next year, a multi-million pound, outcomes-based, joint commissioning exercise involving Health, local authority and police partners, led by my team, will mean that an expanded operational service is protecting victims in Essex.
In May 2013, I appointed a new Chief Constable for Essex Police, Stephen Kavanagh, who shares my commitment to tackling domestic abuse. The Chief has radically reorganised the specialist domestic abuse teams in our county, and a range of measures are now in place. These include the use of Clare’s Law, also known as the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, which enables people to find out if their partners have a previous history of domestic violence. Another initiative is Operation Shield, a proactive operation to manage the most dangerous domestic abuser perpetrators, around 120 across Essex, who pose the greatest risk to their victims in order to reduce the likelihood of further offending and protect victims. Essex Police has also used new legislation to obtain Domestic Violence Protection Notices (DVPNs) in cases where reports have been received of domestic related incidents, but there is not enough evidence to charge a person. If officers have concerns about an individual’s safety, the DVPN enables safeguarding measures to be implemented.
This is tangible, meaningful, work helping to keep victims safe and prevent harm.
Since October 1, 2014, I’ve had responsibility for commissioning local victims’ support services. There are already some excellent services supporting victims in Essex, and we’ve been working closely with local partners to develop a better understanding of the existing position. This work has identified some gaps in the provision of services which we are aiming to address, in partnership with other local commissioners, to ensure consistent, high quality, support for victims across our county. One of the key, innovative, initiatives will be the launch of a new PCC-funded Victims’ Gateway online service, which will enable members of the public to identify appropriate local support agencies if they or a friend or family member have been the victims of crime. This has been developed in partnership with the PCC Victims’ Forum group, which has membership from a range of local voluntary and community sector organisations. My commitment to the principles contained in the local voluntary sector Compact underpins all my work with voluntary and community groups.
I have also continued to fund the Community Safety Partnerships which bring together local authorities, local Essex Police officers, Essex County Fire and Rescue Service, probation, health authorities, the voluntary sector, and local residents and businesses to identify local crime and ASB issues and work together to address them. In addition, through the Criminal Justice Board, we are working to bring together partner agencies to support an effective, end to end, service for victims of crime.
Through the New Initiatives Fund, I’ve provided seed money for a range of grassroots community safety projects, some of which have already had significant results. For instance, we provided £16,000 to fund a project in Chelmsford to drug test suspects on arrest, and ensure earlier intervention with heroin or crack cocaine users who commit a significant amount of opportunist crime. The pilot project has been so successful that the Home Office provided over £700,000 to expand Drug Testing On Arrest across the eight police custody suites in Essex. Over the next two years, an extra 400 people per year will be referred for treatment, hopefully helping to break the links between Class A drug abuse and crime.
We’ve also helped to fund the creation of two teams of Rural Special Constables, where officers with a rural background can use their local knowledge to keep communities safe. Initiatives such as this are important, innovative work designed to meet the varied needs of our local communities.
We’re doing increasing amounts of work with young people, ensuring their voices are listened to. At a Youth forum in July 2014, young people wanted to make a film capturing their views of safety and crime from across Essex. My team is now working with partner agencies to explore how some of the ideas can be implemented to improve the support and opportunities available for young people in all parts of the county.
Over the next year, I aim to bring a new focus across both police and partner agencies to tackling some of the hidden harms in our county such as human trafficking, modern slavery, ‘honour’ based abuse and Female Genital Mutilation. We know these crimes are happening in Essex, and we need to do more to protect the victims and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Finally, I want to stress the changing nature of policing. At every public meeting, I hear heartfelt concerns about a lack of police visibility, and the desire to see more “Bobbies on the beat”. The reality is that in a time of economic austerity and cuts to budgets, there will be fewer officers. We need to ensure that they are deployed in the most intelligent and effective fashion possible to protect all our communities and reduce harm.
It is clear to me that the front line of policing is now often the front room. The majority of domestic abuse cases happen in the family home, behind closed doors. Fraudsters frequently use the internet and telephones, and target people they perceive as vulnerable to their criminal schemes, such as the elderly. The internet is also used by criminals to radicalise young people, to groom our children, and to distribute horrible imagery of child abuse.
Recently, we had the shocking case of Martin Goldberg who we now believe was filming images of young boys in the showers both of the school at which he worked and at a local leisure centre. On learning details of the original investigations by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), the National Crime Agency (NCA ) and Essex Police, it was clear to me that it should not have taken more than two years from CEOP receiving an intelligence package to police identifying GoIdberg as a deputy head teacher. As someone who had access to children in his workplace, I asked the Chief Constable for an urgent review, and as a result Essex Police will now perform an occupation and workplace vetting check on receipt of any intelligence package suggesting that a person has a sexual interest in children, regardless of the nature of any accompanying risk assessment.
As Police and Crime Commissioner, it was clear to me that in order to safeguard children in Essex, and bring perpetrators to justice, we could not wait months or even years for the results of any independent watchdog investigation – as important as that process is. We needed to identify any key issues immediately, and Essex Police needed to act to address those matters and help protect children from harm as soon as possible. The force’s rapid action was important and has my full support.
During my first two years, I have built a highly professional team, starting with a Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner, Lindsay Whitehouse, with real experience in the criminal justice world. I believe we also have real expertise in important areas such as scrutinising Essex Police, engaging with the public and commissioning support services for victims across our county.
A central part of my role as PCC is to hold the Chief Constable to account, to ensure that Essex Police is working as effectively as possible. It is also important that, where mistakes have been made, these are rapidly identified and addressed in a constructive fashion. I firmly believe that this is a crucial task for all PCCs. It is one I am committed to delivering to the best of my, and my team’s, ability on behalf of everyone in our county.
Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex
The PCC’s Annual Report for 2013-14 can be read here.