Police stations closed, police numbers down, crime up: how the Tories are ruining neighbourhood policing

PolicingThe “Safer Neighbourhood” Police teams of six police officers and community support officers in each council ward in London – introduced by Labour Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2006 and widely credited for a sharp fall in crime since then – are now under threat. Police numbers are falling, police stations are closing, there’s more and more centralisation, and the long-term decline in crime levels in London is starting to go into reverse.

Here in Blackheath Westcombe ward we have an excellent police team led by acting sergeant Tom Button and based upstairs from Marks and Spencers on Old Dover Road, at the very heart of the ward it serves. The team is held to account by an active Safer Neighbourhood Panel, with representatives from community groups and neighbourhood watch schemes across the ward, which meets quarterly. Since it started in 2006 Blackheath Westcombe ward’s police team has done a great job at reducing crime, tackling anti-social behaviour at the Royal Standard and elsewhere, giving out advice to householders to prevent their homes and cars being broken into, and recently putting in painted markings around cashpoints at the Royal Standard (the yellow boxes labelled “private” may be unsightly but are very effective: the number of robberies and distraction thefts has fallen to almost nil since they arrived).

Privacy markings around cashpoints at the Royal Standard: unsightly but effective at cutting crime

Privacy markings around cashpoints at the Royal Standard: unsightly but effective at cutting crime

Boroughwide, the police and the Labour council work together closely and have jointly funded a Violent and Organised Crime Unit (VOCU) which has helped cut crime in Greenwich by 10.5% from 2007 to 2013 – a faster fall in crime than most other London boroughs. The police, council and other agencies have also started a new project to tackle domestic violence, which is too common in Greenwich and which has not always been tackled as effectively as it should have been.

But after a long period of decline crime has recently started rising again: the Met’s latest figures show that there were 1,640 crimes in Greenwich in March 2014, up 8.5% on February (in Blackheath Westcombe, the increase was even higher: crime rose by 18% from February to March). In both February and March 2014, the number of crimes in Blackheath Westcombe ward was more than double the same two months in 2013.

Our local police are currently based on Old Dover Road - but for how much longer?

Our local police are currently based on Old Dover Road – but for how much longer?

While it may be unwise to draw too many conclusions from a short-lived rise in crime, it’s time to look at whether Boris Johnson’s decision to cut police numbers, close police stations and centralise many of the Met’s functions is to blame.

Although ward panels can still set three key priorities for their local neighbourhood police team, the “MOPAC seven” London-wide priorities take priority. Under Ken Livingstone, the police defined a “neighbourhood” as a council ward (about 10,000 residents): under Boris, a “neighbourhood” is now at least four wards (40,000-plus residents). Since local police teams were given less flexibility over overtime and shift patterns back in 2010, policing has got a lot less local.

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Back to the 1830s: Greenwich town centre may lose its Police station

Greenwich (2)There has been a Police Station in Greenwich town centre (originally  on Park Row, and nowadays on Burney Street) since the 1830s. But very soon there could be no police building at all in  this part of the borough.

Boris Johnson’s proposals for police station closures  (being consulted on at http://www.london.gov.uk/priorities/policing-and-crime/community-engagement) hit this part of the borough hard. The only two police stations left open in Greenwich Borough would be Plumstead and Eltham. Greenwich, Woolwich and Thamesmead Police stations are to be closed and sold off, leaving no police stations at all in  SE10 or SE7. Read more of this post

Remembering Stephen Lawrence

After so long, it is easy to forget how seriously the murder of Stephen  Lawrence, and its aftermath, stigmatised the whole of south-east London, and Eltham in particular. Everyone who lived in Greenwich at the time of the murder will have their own memories, and their own feelings about the long wait for justice. Here are mine.

The conviction of two of the murderers last week is not a cause for celebration – and nor is it the end of the story as several members of the gang of five or six thugs who murdered Stephen Lawrence are still free. But it is a chance to reflect on how the determination of the Lawrence family over 18 years has lead to some profound changes in our society – changes for the better. Read more of this post

We are all vigilantes now

There will be many feelings a week on from the start of the riots. Anger that large numbers of people feel so detached from society that they feel the need to loot and commit arson. Surprise that, for one night at least, the police appeared to have lost control of our streets. Exasperation that areas of London that are already deprived – Tottenham, Peckham, Hackney and Woolwich – will now be further stigmatised by the riots, and will now have to overcome that stigma to attract investment.

Commenting on this kind of social unrest is, as always, a minefield for politicians. For Labour, raising concerns over government policies that may encourage more people to join such rioting can be misinterpreted as sympathy for criminals.

Equally, as the Government is realising, it is difficult to simultaneously take credit for restoring peace on the streets, praise the police, and  ignore their warnings that cutting police numbers will make future disorder more likely. While both the police and politicians were recently dealt a blow by the phone hacking scandal, the police retain a bedrock of public trust which politicians have completely lost, possibly for ever.

But there are clearly some questions for the police to answer. Locally, as late as the early evening of the Monday (August 8th) the police said that they did not expect any trouble in Woolwich – with hindsight, not a good call as a few hours later there was serious unrest in the town centre. There clearly are questions about the shooting of Mark Duggan earlier this month, and the way the police communicated with his family and friends afterwards. Read more of this post

Policing: you get what you pay for

PolicingBlackheath Westcombe ward is well-served by an excellent Safer Neighbourhoods Team, run by Sergeant Dave Crackles. They meet with the community every few months at consultative meetings chaired very well by a local resident, who is independent of both the police and the council. Based in new offices upstairs from Marks and Spencers on Old Dover Road, they work hard to tackle the most serious crime and disorder problems in the area – burglary and car crime (which are mostly evening and night-time problems), and more low-level disorder in and around the Royal Standard after the schools shut from 3pm onwards – with the best will in the world, a small minority of young people will behave irresponsibly and everyone agrees a police presence is beneficial here at this time. Street crime and robberies are thankfully very rare in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, but burglary and car crime levels are generally above the borough average, as the relatively affluent population does attract opportunistic criminals wanting to steal valuables from homes and vehicles.

Dealing with these two separate policing priorities, at very different times of day, means flexible working and , inevitably, some overtime. The trouble is that the Tory mayor Boris Johnson has made no commitment to protecting these police teams, and keeping their strength at one sergeant, two PCs and three police community support offices per ward.

And the Met’s spending cuts have already started.

Each local police team in this part of Greenwich used to have an annual overtime budget of £3,500. This has not been centralised into a pot of £12,000 across six wards – working out as an average of £2,000 per team. Teams that have been responsible and have underspent their overtime budget have found that money left over will be taken away – giving a perverse incentive for teams to spend money quickly or lose it from next year’s budget.Shifts have been changed so that officers now only work one weekend in three, not two weekends in five. IN short, all the hallmarks of over-centralised financial controls getting the upper hand of policing.

The local police have done a great job in tackling local crime problem, and burglary in particular has fallen drastically in the last few years. But those figures are now beginning to creep up again. Of course the police should tighten their belts, make efficiency savings and ensure that money is well spent. But surely frontline policing should be cut last, not first.