The fairest cop of all

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TONIGHT the third annual UK Community Officer of the Year award will be presented at the Merchant Taylors' Hall in London. The award recognises constables' 'personal skills and initiatives in evaluating and solving problems in their communities'. It is designed not only to highlight the latest attempts to reduce crime but also to promote closer ties between police and public, harking back to the supposed golden age of Dixon of Dock Green, when the crime rate was lower and everyone knew and trusted their local bobby.

However, the term 'community policing' is a loose one, covering almost all aspects of law enforcement, and not all proposals linked to it have found favour.

The chairman of the Police Federation, Fred Broughton, recently attacked a call from Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, for a new partnership between the police and the public in which local residents would regularly patrol their area and report anything suspicious. He said the civilian force would amount to little more than a 'Dad's Army', although he stresses that he supports the principle of community policing.

Liberty, the civil liberties group, has gone further, saying the concept of community policing 'means nothing'. John Wadham, the group's legal director, fears it could lead to the public policing their areas while being accountable to nobody. 'We need to find out what it does mean, because police officers are trained in the law, trained how to restrain people, and citizens are not,' he says. 'We don't want this leading to any sort of vigilantism.'

So is community policing a realistic way to combat crime or simply a useful public relations exercise engineered by the police to win back confidence?

And how does the notion of a return to old-fashioned values gel with the Police Federation's call this week to consider arming officers on foot patrols in high-crime, inner-city areas blighted by drug dealing? The federation believes it is now unacceptable to send unarmed police officers into areas where their lives would be seriously at risk.

Matthew Brace examines four British cities to find out if the community policeman is reality or an illusion.

GREATER MANCHESTER POLICE Recorded crimes (1992): 366,664 Recorded crimes (1993): 342,315 Change: 6.6 per cent drop Force area: 495 sq miles Force area population: 2,500,000 Force strength: 7,047 officers (one for every 354 people) Neighbourhood Watch schemes: 9,636 (covering 209,246 homes) Mike Satterthwaite, chair of Wythenshawe Homewatch Association: 'It's like the old days when you had your community bobby. He's more of a mate really.

He's the bloke who will see if you're all right after a burglary.'

Assistant Chief Constable (Community Affairs) Alan Castree: 'The force has a five-year strategic plan for community policing, and within that plan are two key projects: one is to deliver community programmes which meet expectations and the other is to develop safety programmes.

'I wonder if those people who level criticisms at the police really do know of the work we do with the young, the elderly and the ethnic minority groups.'

Sarah Ellis, 19-year-old student: 'I was attacked recently; a boy held a kitchen knife towards me and asked me for my bag. The police were very helpful after the event but there was no one around at the time.

'I don't think more community policing would deter opportunist crimes like this one, although it may have some effect on organised crime.'

WEST YORKSHIRE POLICE Recorded crimes (first 8 months of '93): 203,301 Recorded crimes (first 8 months of '94): 193,604 Change: 4.8 per cent drop Force area: 787.25 sq miles Force area population: 2,013,693 Force strength: 4,986 officers (one for every 403 people) Neighbourhood Watch schemes: 2,000 Deputy Chief Constable, Tom Cook: 'The UK is policed with fewer officers per head of population than any other country in Western Europe, except the Danes, so support from the public is fundamental to British policing.

'I look back to things that happened to me when was 10 or 12 with a rosy glow although at the time they must have seemed serious, but I don't think there's been a Golden Age.

'Without community policing we will end up with an armed police force and officers with a gun on their hip. We don't want to see the state of confrontational policing that we see with the CRE in France.'

Paul Boldy, chairman of a Leeds inner-city Watch Federation: 'The scheme was formed because we went to the police rather than them coming round touting for business.

'I would like to see a higher but more approachable police presence in these areas, not so much as a show of strength but as a point of contact. A lot of people see the police arriving mob-handed in vans - as the aggressor rather than the protector.'

Hilary Saffman, housewife and victim of burglary: 'In the area I live I have never seen a policeman walking the streets.

'It might have been less traumatic to have a special policeman who would have come and visited me, somebody I know, rather than two or three strangers.'

STRATHCLYDE POLICE Recorded crimes (first 8 months of '93): 194,154 Recorded crimes (first 8 months of '94): 183,788 Change: 5.3 per cent drop Force area: 5,347.5 sq miles Force area population: 2.3 million Force strength: 7,000 - one officer for every 328 people, 436 dedicated to community policing in urban and suburban areas Neighbourhood Watch schemes: 1,513 Assistant Chief Constable (Community Services), Crispian Strachan: 'All policing rests with the consent, support and help of the community.

'Community policing is a means of preventing trouble before it occurs and we're working with the community and groups and agencies to try to make life safer for everyone.'

Ben Biggins, Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator for Knightswood area of Glasgow: 'The community police attend all our meetings and go out of their way to help. Around here there are a lot of car crimes and opportunist burglaries, but the presence of community police seems to reassure people, especially the elderly. We want more of that.'

Graham Walkinshaw, director, Scottish Drugs Forum: 'The police often go into schools to give talks about drugs, but it's very important to monitor the education these officers have had and how they approach the problem with children. Saying things like 'Just Say No' sometimes just doesn't work.

'There are areas you could walk to from our offices and see drug- dealing going on quite openly. The question is, how does the community deal with that?

'Police are trying to build up a relationship in bad drug areas with people they might then have to arrest.'

METROPOLITAN POLICE Recorded crimes (April 1992 to March 1993): 944,185 Recorded crimes (April 93 to March 1994): 895,894 Change: 5.1 per cent drop Force area: 787 sq miles Force area pop: 6,756,000 Force strength: 28,135 officers: one for every 240 people) Neighbourhood watch schemes: 11,000 (covering 1 million dwellings) Commander Bernard Luckhurst: 'By getting in closer with the public we can take steps to avoid problems in areas like Broadwater Farm. I think Broadwater Farm is now a very good example of policing our community.'

Michael Dempsey, freelance journalist and victim of a serious assault: 'Community policing is one way they get respect from that community but it seems to have taken a long time to set up.

'I don't think the police have any choice but to introduce this if they are seriously going to tackle offences, but there's a huge gap between politicians' speeches and the police on the streets.'

Lisa Longstaff, spokeswoman for Women Against Rape: 'To our knowledge the police have not launched any community policing to do with rape.

'What community policing should be doing is providing the protection women need.'

(Photograph omitted)