Innovation should be easier to achieve now that local governance of the police is in the hands of a single, professional Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and not subject to a committee-based Police Authority. A Commissioner only has the theme of policing and justice to work on day to day, unlike councillors who made up the majority of Police Authority members and who are principally in post to represent the diverse interests of their ward, ranging from refuse collections and housing to planning applications and swimming pools.
PCCs can take decisions quickly, on their own but they also benefit from ideas through being known as the public’s voice in policing’. We specifically meet with sundry groups and organisations to discuss police and justice issues and their views can be clear and even radical. Of course, some individuals are personally innovative, especially on a theme which interests them, and many PCCs have made creative changes for the better in their first three years in office.
An example from Northumbria not only evidences that kind of innovation but also shows how police, often in the past, impervious to change, have themselves become more open through contact with a non-police insider PCC.
In Newcastle in 2013 there was a devastating multiple rape of a 17-year-old girl. A doorman excluded her from city centre club at night because she was intoxicated. A male passer-by took over the girl and immediately had sex with her in a public place. She was incapable of either consenting or refusing yet police who were brought by the public to the scene, allowed themselves to be convinced that he was her boyfriend taking her home. That man passed her on to two other men who took her around the city having sex with her for many hours until she ‘came to’ and ran away for help. The men were arrested and CCTV footage has ensured that two of them are currently in prison.
However everyone was clear that this could never happen in our city again.
I joined the city police commander, licensing, adult services and community safety staff from the Local Authority, representatives from health, probation and the business community and asked them to work with me and the Tyneside rape crisis centre on a training package. Phoenix, the company which provides door staff to many of the pubs and clubs paid for their staff to take this course. It simply teaches door staff that they have a duty of care towards people who are vulnerable in the night time economy. The role should not be confined to guarding his or her employer’s property but would include a safeguarding element for the public. Now rather than excluding or refusing entry to someone who is vulnerable, whether through drink or otherwise, door staff will invite them into a quiet place on the premises and by reconnecting them with friends or calling for help from street pastors or the police, will try to assure their safety. This safeguarding package is now a compulsory part of the Security Industry Authority’s new entrant course for door staff and it has been spread on Tyneside to hotel staff, public transport workers and even refuse collectors, all of whom offer extra pairs of eyes and ears to watch over enthusiastic participants in the night time economy.
At first, the police themselves were uncritical of their officers’ behaviour that night. They made the cogent point that the police could not interview every couple they saw in the city centre because the female was drunk. However, police do have a duty to prevent crime and neither officer seemed to have understood that the young woman would’ve been too drunk to be capable of consenting to sex and that therefore the male passer-by had raped her and should have been arrested. We involved Tyneside rape crisis who well understand the working methods of predatory men and together we developed a ‘key conversation’ which means that officers will now ask key questions of such a couple and ascertain whether their concerns have been allayed or whether they need to intervene. Police have been required to consult and work with partners since the 1990s but if I had not been there with the authority to make that point, there would have been no change to their practice.
Another simple but effective change has been the advent of DVSA cars in Northumbria. They are vehicles in which both a police officer and a women’s aid worker respond together to every domestic abuse 999 call at one of our peak times in one of our peak places. The officer will stop the crisis which caused the call and the worker will offer immediate expert advice and support to the caller. Many domestic abuse victims call the police only because they are scared and do not want a criminal justice process to follow, yet they do need a way to manage or escape from their situation. 55% of people approached in this way later seek more help from women’s aid and most of those people are not known to the authorities and so are unlikely to have had any help of this kind before.
These small ideas can make a big difference. They are not rocket science. Police and Crime Commissioners bring a fresh perspective to these everyday issues, buttressed by high local profiles which give them excellent ability to mobilise a wide range of partners in pursuit of better community safety, crime prevention and detection.
Vera Baird, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria