Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
This month marks the end of my first full year as Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
Representing residents’ concerns and ensuring genuine change is of course enormously rewarding. It’s also been a very steep learning curve.
I came into the role with views based on living in a very safe county, but with the same media and political rhetoric we’re all used to. I was guilty of a number of common misconceptions about crime and policing, and I use this month’s column to share some of those with you and hopefully to go some way to setting the record straight.
It is easy to believe – given some of that media rhetoric – that violent crime and burglary are on the rise and that the cause is fewer police on our streets.
In fact, ‘traditional’ crime is at a low. You are safer from intrusion in your home or attack on the street than you have ever been. Where we are most at risk is where we least expect it: on the devices in our pockets, at the computer on our desk, and the iPad in our children’s bedrooms.
To an elderly person living alone, a scammer on the other end of the telephone is more likely to rob them of their savings than the stranger on the other side of the door. Criminals are changing and adapting, and so must the way we tackle crime.
The pledge (and fulfilment) of the 20,000 extra police officers from Government is enormously welcome, and is translating into more officers on our streets every day. I know from my residents, councillors, and MPs that this is welcome.
But while it is important that our officers are carrying out visible patrols to ensure our streets are safer, this rarely protects our most vulnerable: our children, those with serious mental or physical illnesses, and our lone elderly.
Politically, there is a huge temptation to build more police stations and to put all those extra officers onto the streets – especially those where our voters live. In reality, as my Essex colleague Roger Hirst set out in his excellent column last week: “there is plenty of evidence to show that random patrol, rapid response and reactive investigation do little to reduce crime.”
This is a challenging message to give constituents who understandably feel reassured by the presence of a local bobby on their street. But if the challenge we want to meet is to prevent crime from happening in the first place and to deal with it effectively when it does then, as Hirst says, random foot patrols aren’t how we do it.
Alongside more officers on streets we must also invest in our investigative capability, in pro-active policing and in ensuring we have good intelligence – not just on the community beat but on the digital one too. The work being done by Surrey’s digital team is catching real criminals, in real time.
But you won’t ever see them or know their names. They probably don’t even look like your image of a police officer, and there’s a good chance that they are police staff.
I’m enormously proud of Surrey Police’s recent report from His Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) which awarded the Force ‘outstanding’ for crime prevention. This didn’t happen by accident – strong leadership and excellent officers took an intelligent, problem-solving approach to keeping local communities safe and it pays off.
It is a lazy myth that police funding has been cut by this Government. However, it is true that inflation continues to bite into budgets, meaning we must ensure maximum effectiveness and efficiency. As all Conservatives know, we have a duty to ensure that we are spending public money wisely, on policies and interventions that are proven to deliver results.
PCCs are incredibly alive to the cutbacks our residents are making. We also know that when times are tough economically, crime (including fraud – the fastest rising crime type) rises and so spending on prevention is even more important.
Unfortunately, that means raising council tax precept levels for households across the country. However, we know that you will hold us to account for our spending of your money – something that simply wasn’t possible under the old regime of Police Authorities.
For PCCs, spending wisely means smart decisions on commissioning, and reaching beyond policing and into our communities and other agencies to ensure your money goes further.
That means supporting domestic abuse refuges so that women and children can flee an abuser; working with prisons to tackle re-offending rates; securing Home Office money to teach children about being safe online and outside the home (as well, sadly, as within it); and bringing agencies together to tackle persistent anti-social behaviour, which we know blights lives when not dealt with.
There is so much more to keeping us safe than policing alone, but smarter use of money, officers, and staff, and a real understanding of crime and its causes, is a good start.