Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
Not a week goes by without a news story which challenges our trust in those whose job it is to govern, look after or keep us safe.
Policing is no different. The Met have obviously been the focus of much of this but other forces are not immune from scandal and bad behaviour.
So the 40th Annual Poling Conference, looking at the theme of legitimacy and confidence, hosted by the fantastic Cumberland Lodge charity in Windsor Great Park, was timely.
It brought together a group of about 50 academics, senior officers and PCCs for a weekend to examine an issue we all face in our communities.
There was a heavy focus on the evidence supporting our discussions – in-depth surveys, polling and academic analysis. These set the tone and were invaluable.
(For example, those who think that lack of deference and trust are new phenomena should remember that during the Great Fire of 1834, as those in Westminster battled to save the Palace, there were cheers and jeers from the public across the river.)
I was particularly interested in the statistics provided at the first session on Friday evening from a recent survey on satisfaction.
It was not a surprise to see that satisfaction in all our major institutions has fallen over the years – from judges and politicians to senior hospital leaders and CEOs of companies, and it was heartening to learn policing still comes above those other professions.
It probably won’t shock you to learn that the group with the highest level of confidence in policing in England and Wales are Conservative Remain voters. We (for I am one) are conservative in our belief of the importance of institutions and history and generally trusting of those institutions.
Contrast the fact that over 60 per cent of this group are satisfied with the police with the 19 per cent of black British women who feel the same and you can see why these conversations are so important in modern Britain.
It was clear too from the numbers that there is a balance to be found. Not a meeting goes by where residents don’t ask for more ‘Bobbies on the beat’, and I am not immune to their pleas. Regardless of the efficacy of more officers walking our streets, an increased policing presence in our area increases our confidence in policing.
However, if the state is seen to ‘over-police’ then trust levels go down. We saw this during Covid with forces including Derbyshire criticised for being over-zealous and in the recording of non-crime hate incidents. We all want the police to be there for us, no one wants to be on the receiving end.
Victims are less likely to trust police unless they have had a positive experience after reporting the crime. I’ve seen this in Surrey, where we have experienced a large number of luxury vehicles stolen in recent years. Even when police have not been able to solve the crime, I’ve received emails from grateful residents praising officers for their handling of the report.
Likewise, our experience at the end of the long arm of the law also matters. We see low trust in policing from young black men corresponding to an increase in stop and search, a tactic that has dubious effectiveness.
Yet a black friend was quick to praise police recently after he was stopped in his car and was very keen to pass on his thanks to the officer for what was ultimately a positive experience. He has come away with increased trust and confidence in Surrey Police.
Anyone in policing has seen huge changes in the challenges over the last few decades, much of these the result of societal changes and the complexity of social need. Vast amounts of neighbourhood policing time is taken up by mental health call-outs and missing persons. Recorded sexual offences are increasing and victims (rightly) expect justice.
These are issues that can’t be solved by the police, or by any single service. It’s why the ‘Commissioner’ part of PCC is so important.
I believe the place where I can add the most value is in reflecting residents’ needs and bringing together the organisations – local authorities, NHS trusts, criminal justice bodies and charity providers, amongst others – and to commission the services that can help solve the challenges my communities face. We must be open and honest about these challenges and about what we’re doing to address them.
Now that we’ve had this discussion behind closed doors and under the Chatham House Rule, it’s time for us to get out there and acknowledge what the public are telling us they need and ensure we gain back their confidence. Perhaps an idea for those at the top of government too?