Friday, 9 January 2015

A slick performance from the Commissioner as Rent a Cop eyes a move to Stoke.

On Monday evening around twenty two people braved the damp and cold evening of what was, allegedly, the gloomiest day of the year to attend a PACT meeting at the Medical Institute in Hartshill.

The attraction was a double bill featuring Staffordshire Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis and Joy Garner, Stoke-on-Trent’s representative on the Police and Crime Panel.

There has been a change in Mr Ellis’s style since his last visit to this parish. I’ve previously described him as resembling a house master at a good public school, now he seems like a man who might have his eye on being headmaster someday.

There was certainly a touch of the junior minister with prospects in his delivery on Monday night.

He outlined the impact his attempts to modernise the technology used by the county’s officers had on putting more Bobbies on the beat. Streamlining the mountains of paperwork they have to deal with and getting the multitude of IT systems the force uses, and which currently get on together about as well as cats in a bag, to coordinate properly certainly met with approval from the uniformed officers in the room.

Mr Ellis also highlighted his determination to engage the public with the work of the police, through the 268 projects backed to date through his People Power fund and the work done by the force’s cadet scheme to reach out to young people.

Other engagement initiatives planned for the year ahead include involving members of the public in appointing a new Chief Constable and the setting up of a Safer Communities Panel. Quite how said panels will work, who will sit on them and whether they will have anything like teeth remains to be seen, but it does suggest some level of commitment to public involvement.

All in the garden isn’t rosy though, with his brows knitted together in the way they teach people to do at politician school when they’re being ‘grave’ Mr Ellis told his audience that funding was ‘tricky’; meaning the Treasury would like the force to rub along with less of it, but that he was committed to protecting front line services.

He also expressed disappointment with the support offered to victims of crime and the inability of the council, police and other bodies to work together efficiently. The former, he said, would be addressed by a ‘victim’s gateway’ bringing all the available services together in June.

It is fair to say that Councillor Garner has a less rehearsed approach to public speaking to that of Commissioner Ellis, less stagecraft and more of a chat over a non-existent garden wall. Not a bad approach and sometimes an appealing one since it has the benefit of being genuine rather than just seeming to be genuine.

Unfortunately she came to Monday’s meeting struggling under the weight of two problems. The first is that the police and crime panel has a somewhat nebulous role scrutinising the activities of a public servant most of the public couldn’t be bothered to vote for.

She gamely asserted that the panel was there to ask the public’s questions and then spent much of the meeting fielding questions of her own as to whether the city was ‘shouting up’ for itself on the panel. Her answer that the members of the panel worked together to hold the PCC to account was factually accurate, but exposed their big problem. As a committee by its very nature the work it does is dull and focussed on detail making it hard to feed the press with stories of battles won and concessions gained.

The other problem dogging Councillor Garner was that she spent much of the evening defending the council’s unpopular cuts agenda. Questions about the removal of school crossing guards and the money spent of trying to bring HS2 to the city bounced over her head like cricket balls on a fast wicket, by parroting the party line about the cuts being all the fault of the wicked government she played a straight bat to most deliveries, but scored few runs.

Mr Ellis didn’t have the easiest of times answering his own questions, asked about statistics on littering he gave an ill thought out response about attending a terrorism briefing earlier in the day had pushed such matters clear out of his mind; rude. He also coined the phrase ‘purposeful visibility’ to describe what he wanted officers to engage in, which sounds like pure minister speak. Aspiring to play with the political big kids is fine, but he should try to avoid picking up their worst habits.

The surprise of the evening came at the end of the meeting with Stewart Brown and Steve Rowney of security company Facilitas giving a presentation on proposals to pilot a Community Patrol and Response project in Hartshill and Penkhull.

In the spirit of openness I should declare that I live in one of the communities where the project is to be trialled. It amounts to householders paying £1 a week to have a security guard patrol their neighbourhood and report any suspicious incidents or individuals to the police.

Their motives may be noble, the project would be run on a not for profit basis; but it won’t work and shouldn’t be attempted.

The feeling of the meeting expressed though a number of questions from the floor and some creditable comments by Councillor Garner was that local people won’t support a private police force. There are also practical problems since the patrols would only be able to observe and report and so couldn’t protect people or property.

This particular project is likely to fail, what worries me is that now the idea is in the public forum it won’t go away. A council keen to cut costs any which way it can is open to being tempted by ‘radical’ suggestions.

Like it or not Rent-a-Cop could be patrolling a street near you if not tomorrow then some time soon.

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