With the battle against crime high on the agenda, councils are examining methods of prevention and, in particular, ways to reduce the fear of crime in their communities. These range from better street lighting and renewed interest in Neighbourhood Watch programmes to more expensive operations such as closed-circuit television surveillance, already being used in Newcastle and Northampton and planned in other communities such as Bath and Leicester.
Sedgefield's experiment differs in that it places uniformed patrol officers, employed by the council, on the streets round the clock. The force of 10 men and one woman patrols in Sedgefield's own marked cars and is in radio contact with a control room at a council depot. The council maintains that the intention is not to compete with the police, but to deter crime and, crucially, to reassure residents that something is being done to make them safer. In the first year the patrols are expected to cost pounds 185,000, with pounds 100,000 coming from housing revenue.
The decision to set up such a high-profile scheme stemmed from a recognition of limitations on police resources. But it also came out of the realisation that there were problems, such as dumping on council land, that were not police matters yet still caused upset to residents. Bill Gibson, Sedgefield's customer relations officer, explained: 'The idea came from council members after canvassing for the last local elections. They noted growing concern over increases in crime and vandalism, which does not add to the quality of life.'
He added: 'Sedgefield District Council is not critical of the police but they face difficulties in stretching their resources,' said Mr Gibson. 'They have to focus on priorities that move away from minor criminal activity and nuisance. We believe we are filling that gap. But everyone in the district will still see the police as the first point of call.'
He made it clear the patrols were not like the private security forces that have been hired by resident groups in some crime-ridden parts of the country. He said the Community Force, in addition to its deterrent value, would dispense crime prevention advice and act as another visible point of contact between the council, police and residents.
'By working with local people and other agencies,' Mr Gibson said, 'we will find out what their problems are and will be able to reassure them. It is also another channel for reporting crime, because many people are scared to do so. Yet the best weapon for tackling crime is the public's eyes and ears. We hope to regain the trust of the people, whether matters are reported to us or the police. We don't want our officers to become involved, and would rather they observe and report to the police.'
John Reed, Sedgefield's community safety officer and a former policeman, has direct responsibility for the patrols and says there are advantages to running a scheme through the local authority: 'There is a feeling the root causes of crime are everyone's responsibility. It is a community problem - so we have adopted a community response.' He added: 'Our officers just patrol. We are filling a middle ground between the police and a security service. People feel reassured by a uniformed force.'
While the Sedgefield Force is unique, it had its origins within the council's security programmes. The district already had a small team of guards responsible for patrolling council properties outside office hours. These guards provided the nucleus for the new patrols. Mr Reed also plans to involve other agencies - probation, social services - in a wider community safety strategy.
Even though the scheme is in its infancy, Sedgefield has been surprised by the level of interest from other local authorities. Some, such as Pickering Town Council, are watching developments to see if similar schemes might work for them.
'We were looking at the scheme because of the rising crime rate in the town and to support the police,' said Frida Clarke, Pickering's town clerk. 'We have a feeling that a private company should not do the job of the police. We have a working party looking at the whole scope of security in the town. The council has not yet decided its policy, but we are concerned that the issue really lies with the Home Office to redress manpower shortages.'
Pickering is among those looking at closed-circuit TV to back up police patrols.
Steve Bassam of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities sees advantages in the patrol scheme, but would also rather have more funds for the police. 'The Sedgefield force is an understandable reaction to spiralling crime figures, and one of a number of initiatives to get authorities into the crime prevention business,' he said.
'The philosophy of Sedgefield is in line with this. We would prefer more resources for beat policing, but at least this is operating within local democratic control.' He questioned, however, how easily a scheme developed for a district like Sedgefield, with its large rural areas, could be transplanted to the confines of a metropolitan borough. Similar reservations were expressed by Bath City Council,which examined Sedgefield's Community Force after questions from a council member.
'I concluded it was not relevant to our needs,' said Clive Abbott, the chief executive. 'Bath's geography is different, so I felt it was best to concentrate on closed-circuit television. But experience suggests using a range of solutions.
'Local authorities have a critical role to play in crime prevention and in diminishing the fear of crime. If you can make people feel safe, for example by closed-circuit TV, the comfort factor is great. Local authorities must have a role as the ultimate safety net in the community. We can make people understand that it is a community rather than just a police issue.'
So far, responses from Durham police and the Home Secretary to Sedgefield's move have been guarded, but not dismissive. 'In the final analysis,' said John Reed, 'we all have the same aim.'
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