The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, has issued an important reminder about specialist policing in an article in today’s Sunday Telegraph.  In it he highlights the valuable work of the Central e-Crime Unit based in the Metropolitan Police, saying:

“Four criminals obtained the personal financial details of hundreds of people, allowing them to identify up to £8 million they could steal. They siphoned off £750,000 from 64 victims before police arrested them.

In another operation, detectives working with the financial sector found a network of 600 criminally-controlled bank accounts waiting to be used to ‘cash out’ the proceeds of cyber theft.

In other cases, suspects have allegedly offered sophisticated online courses in cyber fraud.

And last week, detectives from the Metropolitan Police Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU), working with the FBI to investigate the theft of money from online bank accounts, charged 11 people.”

I have been closely involved in the setting up of this Unit over the last few years, so it was gratifying to see Sir Paul’s acknowledgement of its contribution to the fight against crime.

Sir Paul points out:

“All these cases indicate the scale of the challenge facing us. Yet my investigators tell me the expertise available to them is thin, compared to the skills at the disposal of cyber criminals.

In a modest south London office block, the PCeU’s small team of officers and civilian support staff are working to tackle cyber criminality.”

As it happened I was in that “modest south London office block” last week, looking at another of the Metropolitan Police’s specialist units, but as I passed the PCeU I was reminded yet again how small a unit it is given the scale of the problems and organised criminality that it is facing.

But Sir Paul was not simply praising a small team of dedicated police officers and staff.  He was making a much more fundamental point:

“They are unseen officers, as far as the public and some politicians are concerned. They work with the financial and internet industry to tackle the use of the internet to facilitate criminality and cyber crime, and to close down illegal sites.

However, the significance of the unit goes to the heart of the current debate about what policing should look like in an era of significant budget cuts.

Some commentators argue that we should concentrate on uniformed policing and draw back from specialised work that could be done by others. Leave cyber crime to the banks and retailers to sort out, the argument runs.

It is a fundamentally misguided argument.

If the debate about police cutbacks gets bogged down in arguments about ‘uniforms before specialists’ we will not serve the public well. It is vital to have a balanced model of policing with visible uniformed officers and specialist units such as PCeU, as well as other key units like the Kidnap Unit, Child Abuse Investigation and homicide teams.”

Sir Paul has hit the nail on the head.  Policing must be about much more than “Bobbies on the beat”.  Neighbourhood presence is of course essential.  But so too is having the specialised resources to tackle organised crime and terrorism – if  these are neglected the ultimate impact on all of our qualities of life is potentially catastrophic.

Current debates about police budgets must not fall into the trap of focusing all the attention on visible policing.  Balance will be essential.

And round the corner what will be the impact of the proposed directly-elected Policing and Crime Commissioners?

There is a danger that a populist focus on visible local policing may appear to be an election-winning formula and that the essential balance in policing will be lost.  If there are to be directly-elected Commissioners – and the Coalition appears to be pretty determined that there should be – it will be vital that a clear legal duty is placed on the new Commissioners to deliver an effective contribution to the fight against organised crime and terrorism.  The new legislation must make sure that the balance between visible local policing and specialist resources, like the PCeU, is maintained.

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