In 2019 the Government promised to recruit 20,000 additional police officers in England and Wales to make our streets safer and protect communities. As of March this year, 21,139 additional officers have been recruited taking the total number of police officers across England and Wales to 149,572. Despite this successful recruitment drive nationally, Devon & Cornwall Police Force recruited an additional 233 officers over the last 12 months – bringing the total officer workforce number to 3,642. This seems uncomfortably low for a police force that covers just shy of 4,000 square miles. In fact, according to the latest Home Office statistics that works out at 204 officers per 100,000 people across the area the force covers, significantly below the England & Wales average of 247 per 100,000 people. That number is not only too low, but leaves no scope to properly police the community as it expands each holiday season, most noticeably over Easter and in July and August.
And with a lack of visible uniformed presence, patterns of crime develop. Anti-social behaviour persists in our towns, groups of younger people congregating on highstreets and in parks, shoplifting with impunity due to a lack of police presence. Shopkeepers and staff should not have to intervene to prevent people from leaving the store with stolen goods, this is not their job. Some of these shop lifting raids are organised on the internet. This sort of behaviour has to be dealt with and a new approach is needed which is proactive not reactive. And the penalties for shop lifting need to be harsher not more lenient. The government’s anti-social behaviour action plan has expanded the police tool kit. Public Space Protection orders are a good thing – provided the police are there to enforces them.
I am told often that visibility of the limited police presence we have seems to be highest during the day when least effective. Presence at night and during bank holidays when anti-social behaviour is at its highest should be a priority. But even if we get that right with more night time patrols, police community support officers do not have sufficient powers to enforce these orders. The police need teeth and the power to both swiftly detain and prosecute offenders. But while we need to deal with how to better use our police force we also need to do a better job intervening early with young people to steer them away from anti-social behaviour. Both parents and schools play a key role here. Both can and should set standards of behaviour which ensure children respect other people and their property. Many do – but a small minority don’t.
As the world becomes more digital, we have seen a rise in digital crime. The Online Safety Bill is the Government’s attempt to try and minimise the effects of internet-based crimes. The Bill contains a ‘triple shield’ of protections that gives adult users greater choice about what they see online and providers greater shielding for young people. The bill also places responsibility on site owners to proactively, rather than merely reactively, monitor their sites to remove illegal content. The real challenge is where the content is legal but harmful. Clearly the right to free speech is important – but should that include a right to anonymity? I have real concerns about groups that are created on social media, sometimes even community groups established to do good, which are abused with anonymous content added often as comments unpoliced which is not just offensive but threatening.
These issues all matter. Some need parliamentary intervention. Others need a new approach from the police. I am meeting the Police and Crime Commissioner shortly – all this will be on my agenda!
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