In my live blogging from the Metropolitan Police Authority yesterday I didn’t get round to reporting on the important debate on the future of safer neighbourhood teams.
Fortunately, Dave Hill has covered it well in his Guardian blog. I’ll quote in full because he is nice about my contribution:
I’ve heard it muttered that the top brass at the Met are almost glad of the excuse provided by budget cuts to pare back safer neighbourhood teams (SNTs). They think community policing is sissy stuff, the murmurs say: they see addressing crime in battlefield deployment terms, and it’s butch specialist units that turn them on.
Perhaps Sir Paul Stephenson has heard stuff like this too, because at yesterday’s meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority he was at vigorous pains to explain how much he values SNTs. “Why wouldn’t we be supportive of it when we’ve seen it bring so many benefits?,” he said. And later: “We did invent this thing. We want it.” He stressed too that SNTs have played “a major role” in the “significant increase” in public confidence in the Met in recent years.
Sir Paul also demonstrated an acute awareness of the political passions stirred by SNTs and his desire to distance himself from those by the length of several barge poles. The standard SNT composition has always been one sergeant, two constables and three PCSOs for each of the capital’s wards. Now, 150 sergeants are to go with another 150 likely to follow. “It is my very clear professional opinion that that is do-able,” Sir Paul said, laying great stress on the “professional.” He went on: “If anyone tells me that any sergeant cannot appropriately supervise two teams, then frankly in my professional opinion that would be nonsense.”
Well, none of the non-Tory politicians on the MPA exactly told him his plans were nonsense – he’s not the Mayor, after all – but they raised multiple questions and concerns. Sergeants do more than supervise, they said – they also patrol and provide a local focal point for the public in a user-friendly system whose strict, ward-level organisation makes it easy to understand.
There was also a pronounced fear that a recommendation to make the utilization of SNTs more flexible would erode a vital sense of local ownership and connection. The commissioner wants borough commanders to be able to move team members across ward boundaries if a particular trouble spot can be better dealt with by having extra uniforms in the area.
Assistant commissioner Ian McPherson, who’d conducted the SNT review under discussion, said that such arrangements would be temporary. But how temporary? Could some wards be left for months on end with just a couple of officers when they’d been used to having six? McPherson said that ward community panels, which set SNTs priorities, recognise that having greater flexibility is “plain common sense.” He pointed out that criminals move around. “We need to be as flexible as they are.”
The Tory AMs, of course, stayed quiet during all this: the reductions in sergeant numbers result from the budget drawn up by the Tory Mayor Boris Johnson, and that might take a bit of explaining. Their political opponents, by contrast, will have no problem pointing the figure of blame over what will be, however you look at it, a reduction in our old friend “police numbers”.
It was left to non-politicians to strike less pessimistic notes. Graham Speed welcomed, “a reasonable outcome in very difficult circumstances.” Self-described “recovering politician” Toby Harris, who was Ken Livingstone’s MPA chair when SNTs were introduced in 2004, summarised the issues succinctly:
The reason we’re making heavy weather of this is that this is being presented as a budget where actually the public won’t notice the change, and I’m not sure that that’s really the case. Obviously, a supervisory ratio of one to two, of sergeants to PCs is a nonsense – if that was the ratio throughout the Metropolitan Police, we’d be saying that was ridiculous. In practice in most wards the sergeants do a little bit more than just supervising and they are seen as part of the dedicated resource to a particular ward. So the fact that a sergeant will be shared will appear to a local community as though they’ve lost somebody. And that’s the problem.
Harris added that the worry with flexibility was that SNTs would change their character from, “A dedicated resource for a particular area, the focus being on problem-solving and reassurance,” to “part of a response team to particular incidents.” He produced a compelling metaphor: you start with the nose of a camel poking into the tent and “before you know it you’ve got the whole smelly animal inside.”
Expect camels to be invoked more frequently than is usual on the mayoral campaign trail from now on.