I spent an interesting hour and a half today discussing policing in our borough with Detective Inspector Martin Goodwin and Sergeant Julie Hillman. Martin is the borough commander and responsible for neighbourhood policing here. He invited me to his office at the Surrey Heath Borough Council building in Camberley after a public conversation we had on Twitter last night. The police station in Camberley has closed and they now have a couple of desks in the foyer of the council building to serve the public. There are many more staff and police officers upstairs.
The desks in the foyer are manned by people in uniforms but their epaulettes say, “Police Staff” on them, ie they are not police officers.
The borough is split into three areas for neighbourhood policing. Broadly, this means the six villages are one area and the rest is divided by the M3. Approximately 50 people, police staff and officers, report to Martin.
Operation Nemesis II
Surrey Heath is a very low crime area. It has the best Neighbourhood Watch network in the UK. I can vouch for the local police panels and how reassuring they are for the residents who attend them. However, there is drug-related crime even here and local police have been raiding suspected drug dealers in a plan they call Operation Nemesis II. This was reported on in this week’s Camberley News and Mail. A journalist accompanied police on one of their raids on which no drugs were found, a “negative result”.
Now, in this country police can’t just smash into people’s homes on the off-chance that they’re drug dealers so they must have had multiple reasons to suspect drugs were there. They have to convince a magistrate to authorise a search warrant. Despite that, sometimes no drugs are found, like in this case. There is no feedback loop to the magistrates to explain why this is happens in some cases so they never get to find out if no drugs were found because a dealer managed to flush them down the toilet in time or because it was a totally innocent person living there minding their own business.
I had been concerned about police concentrating resources on busting cannabis users and small-time dealers. However, Martin assured me that the aim of Operation Nemesis II is to target class A drugs. I think this is a reasonable aim and he confirmed that many other crimes are associated with class A drugs. Like most people, I want the police to target class A drugs dealers, raiding their homes if necessary, and I’m not surprised if they also find cannabis there. The communications I had read seemed only to mention cannabis and it’s unfortunate that the one raid which was witnessed by the impartial press had a “negative result”.
Martin accepted that rounding up drugs dealers only tackles the supply side of the drugs market and only for a short time. He said that it makes drugs less accessible but addicts will travel outside the borough if necessary to get drugs and may have to shoplift more to afford the petrol to get to London. He told me about how addicts in the borough are dealt with and the assistance they receive to come off drugs. This is clearly the best way to tackle drug crime, in my opinion, attacking the demand side of the market.
From what I could see though, our local police are aware of the drug scene in this borough and are acting broadly appropriately. Intelligence about drugs dealers will always be imprecise but police may have to act on it knowing it might not be correct to protect the public. It is important that they weigh up the risks of this too, of course, and don’t raid private properties without probable cause.
“Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics” – Disraeli (possibly)
We went on to discuss crime statistics. Now, Martin (obviously) did not tell me any lies about this. In fact, everything he told me was the truth (and I believed him). However, he did use a lot of statistics. The police force uses statistics for the numbers of each crime reported in each month to measure how effective they are. I don’t think this is fair on Martin and the Surrey Heath police officers. There are so many variables, other than police activity, which influence how many crimes are recorded in a given area. In a low crime area like here this is especially true. If a prolific burglar is released from prison they might commit a couple of months’ worth of crimes in two days before they can be re-arrested. This would completely skew the statistics and be no fault of the local police. The same month the following year, if this doesn’t happen, recorded crime might be seen to drop x% but again it would be due to the exceptional item not happening rather than more effective policing. Martin’s spreadsheet showed how many of each category of crime was reported in each area of the borough so far this financial year and compared it with last year. Where the number had gone up, the percentage increase was on a red background. Some were up by 100%, some were down by 100%, some were in between. All the numbers were small.
I much prefer to look at qualitative measures of crime, the fear of crime and police effectiveness. There were measures of public confidence in the police and satisfaction numbers for people who had reported anti-social behaviour. I’m happy to report that they are high. I wrote down what the exact percentages are and how they changed over a year but I don’t think that is relevant. Like me, most residents have confidence in Surrey Heath police.
I don’t think looking at year-on-year changes to small numbers of crimes is very useful. Although, they did say that we have about one domestic burglary every two days in the borough and ten years ago it was about two burglaries per day. That is a relevant stat, I think. Crime is low here and, as a resident, that’s how it feels to me. I want it to remain like that and I want our police to remain tolerant, sensible and approachable.
Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime – Tony Blair
We talked about local crime prevention measures too. A lot of thought has gone into this, as I would expect. Regular readers will remember that I witnessed Surrey Police’s Taser training and talked to response officers about their decision making. In neighbourhood policing the scenario is wider and longer. I think experienced officers know what works, for example, to keep fighting to a minimum in Camberley town centre on a Saturday night. I hope they don’t rely on statistics too much and can use their knowledge and experience to keep the crime numbers low here and are not forced to display ‘zero tolerance’ when it is not appropriate.
At the end, we even had a chance to discuss the Red Road and traffic problems like speeding. It’s good to know that our local police team are thinking about this too and realise it is important to residents.
It was great to have the opportunity to talk at length about policing in Surrey Heath. I’m very grateful to Martin and Julie for answering my questions patiently and openly. My message to the top management of Surrey Police is: if your short-term crime stats show an increase in Surrey Heath, do not blame the local police officers, realise that low crime numbers can show wild percentage swings for other reasons, and consider if ‘zero tolerance’ is really appropriate for somewhere like Surrey Heath.