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Police and the poverty of ambition

Police and the poverty of ambition

🕔28.Sep 2012

I have hesitated to write this for fear of being accused of cynicism, or even worse of letting down ‘Team Birmingham’, but it must be said: the first public meeting featuring candidates for West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner was a quite dreadful affair.

All credit to Birmingham Chamber of Commerce for organising the event, which understandably focused on business crime, but the would-be commissioners hardly set the room alight with passion and conviction. Even insomniacs would have been hard pressed to stay awake.

Indeed, those in the audience undecided about who they will vote for on November 15 may have gone away wondering whether it is worth voting at all.

What we heard were plenty of platitudes about ‘zero tolerance’ of anti-social behaviour and not putting up with vandals who spray graffiti about the streets, while unsurprisingly given the location of the meeting each candidate solemnly promised to put fighting business crime at the top of their agenda.

How this will be achieved against a backdrop of savage cuts in police spending remained far from clear, although UKIP candidate Bill Etheridge did promise a full and detailed review of spending “from top to bottom” while also pledging to save money by stopping police officers acting as “pseudo social workers”.

There were pledges about buying more goods and services for the police from locally based firms, although no one ventured into how this would be done given: a) The Government insists on Whitehall-based procurement for big-spending items like vehicles and uniforms. b) European competition laws prevent public bodies from bestowing special favours on local companies.

One thing the candidates did not do was criticise the performance of West Midlands Police, which by implication would have meant criticising the Chief Constable, Chris Sims. And yet, there is so much of concern. There is plenty of ammunition for a truly radical police commissioner to use.

Police chiefs have made much of the fact that most, although not all, crime is falling, which is good.

But what about the crucial matter of detection rates?

Figures published by West Midlands Police show that only a paltry 11.3 per cent of domestic burglaries are solved.  The detection rate for robberies is 20.7 per cent, for serious sexual offences it is 31.6 per cent, and for vehicle crime it is an absurdly low 8.8 per cent.

So if your house is burgled and the villains make off with your car, forget about it. The chances of seeing your property again are slim indeed.

But it gets worse. The ‘milestone’ targets that the police are trying to hit are hardly challenging. The force expects to solve 50 per cent of violent assaults, 15 per cent of burglaries, 19 per cent of robberies, 10 per cent of vehicle crime and 35 per cent of serious sexual offences. So on that basis, given the poverty of ambition, West Midlands Police aren’t doing too badly at all.

The Police and Crime Commissioner will have powers to appoint and sack the chief constable, as well as being able to set the force budget and compile priority plans for policing. The police establishment generally is horrified about this, claiming that these powers threaten to infringe on operational matters that ought to be the sole responsibility of chief constables. No great surprise, therefore, that police chiefs will be out in force during the Conservative conference in Birmingham at a fringe meeting where the agenda is entitled: PCCs, a mandate for change?

Personally, I longed for a PCC candidate to stand up at the Chamber meeting and promise, on the first day after being elected. to summon the chief constable and tell him in no uncertain terms that the force’s detection rates aren’t good enough – not by a long chalk. An 18-month deadline to improve should be set, which must be met if the chief constable is to keep his job.

Of course, nothing remotely like that happened. I know that the Labour Party has instructed its PCC candidates to steer clear of criticising the performance of their local force, and the Conservatives would appear to be taking a similar view.

It probably makes sense politically for Labour PCC candidate Bob Jones to say as little as possible, certainly on the subject of detection rates since he has been a police authority member for two decades and must therefore carry some responsibility for poor performance. Let’s face it, the chances are that Labour’s strength in the West Midlands will deliver the commissioner role to Mr Jones on a plate, even if turnout at the election is very low.

Rather than a mandate for change, the November elections look like being a mandate for more of the same as former long-serving police authority members, like Mr Jones , move seamlessly into the PCC hot seat. What’s not to like about that?

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