Victims of violent crime 'dying in the streets' as police lobby for more government money, officer says

Home Affairs Committee hears forces are struggling to retain vital neighbourhood officers amid rising demand

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
@lizziedearden
Wednesday 02 May 2018 13:32
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Victims of violent crime are “dying on the streets” while police forces lobby for more money to deal with rising demand, a senior officer has warned.

Amid a nationwide spike in stabbings and shootings, Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent Jeff Boothe told MPs a “whole-system approach” was needed to break cycles of bloodshed.

Speaking before the Home Affairs Committee, he said focusing on police officer numbers, which plummeted to a record low in the autumn, was “missing a trick”.

“Yes we need to lobby for more resources, but while we lobby for those resources people are still dying on the streets,” Ch Supt Boothe said.

“Young people are crying out for services that have eroded after a number of years, so to expect something to be put in place and have an effect overnight - it’s not going to happen.

“We need to be investing in this in the longer term to ensure we look at not just the current generation but the next ones coming along because they will just follow the same path.”

He said the success of previous violence reduction programmes had caused funding to be cut because authorities “thought a problem had gone”, only for it to return in a year.

Ch Supt Boothe said a large portion of attacks are being committed by youths under 25 and police needed to engage with families, schools and communities to get to the “root causes”.

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He called for police to start innovating with local businesses to get young people at risk of being drawn into gangs, violence and criminality into employment and mentoring, adding: “There are different ways of tackling this problem.”

Statistics released last week showed that knife crime rose by 22 per cent across England and Wales and gun crime by 11 per cent in 2017, with more than 60 people murdered in London alone so far this year.

The government’s first-ever Serious Violence Strategy has mounted a taskforce to collaborate on solutions, but the document was heavily criticised for omitting a Home Office document suggesting that budget cuts had “likely contributed” to rising violence and “encouraged” offenders.

Police officers appearing before the Home Affairs Committee emphasised the importance of neighbourhood policing, which has been hit hard by falling resources and the need to move officers into terrorism and other specialist areas.

Andy Higgins, research director at the Police Foundation, said there was no national definition of what neighbourhood policing is, leaving forces to adopt different approaches and leaving no accurate measure of officers in the role.

Garry Shewan, the retired assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, said there had been a “degradation in the commitment to a neighbourhood policing model”, which sees officers dedicated to small local areas.

“Crime is changing very significantly, and to reduce it you have to have a close working relationship not just with the community but with all partners to understand why crime happens and come up with solutions,” he said.

He argued that neighbourhood officers are best placed to solve problems and gather intelligence, including on gangs and extremism, at an early stage to prevent and disrupt crime.

Mr Shewan said cuts to the number of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), which have fallen by 30 per cent nationwide, would be acceptable as long as forces committed officers to the same role, but MPs heard that increasing pressure from the terror threat, violent crime, missing persons’ reports and mental health crises left them overstretched.

Mike Veale, the chief constable of Cleveland Police, said the demand on policing was “more challenging now than ever” in his 35-year career.

He cited rising cyber crime, terrorism, gang crime, mental health calls and missing people as challenges, while increased confidence in police causes more reports of sexual offences.

“The demands on policing are growing at a time when the resources and budgets are decreasing, and the gap between the demand and resources is a challenge for all chiefs across the country,” he said.

“As social care declines, as some of the healthcare and mental health provision declines, the police service that was the last resort is now becoming the first resort.

“Our officers and staff are now spending many, many hours filling the gaps that other public services are leaving.”

Chief Constable Veale said more than a quarter of a million missing persons’ incidents are being reported every year, placing an additional burden on police.

Dame Vera Bird, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners lead for victims, said only 22 per cent of calls in her home force of Northumbria are now related to criminal offences.

Chief Inspector Michael Brown OBE, mental health coordinator for the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing, said that “much of what we do is not connected to traditional idea of crime, but managing vulnerability”.

Sophie Corlett, the director of external relations at Mind, said that increasing debt and housing instability was pushing more people into crisis.

“The health service is not supporting people sufficiently and they are becoming more unwell than is right,” she added.

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Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, called for police training on mental health to be improved.

“Your police officers are going to be dealing with mental health cases all the time,” she added. “I feel quite worried about this if it is just one day ever in a police officer’s training.”

The hearing came amid debate about the causes of rising violent crime across Britain.

A report by the government cited drug dealing and social media as key drivers, while claiming that the proportion of crime reported to police has increased even in areas where the amount actually being committed has stayed the same.

Meanwhile, police have called for more funding to turn around the loss of thousands of officers and voluntary groups are attacking cuts to youth services.

The government has announced millions of pounds of funding for specific projects, such as terrorism and “police transformation”, but refused to increase its own blanket grants and instead told forces to increase the amount of money they take from council tax.

Nick Hurd, the policing minister, said last week the government was taking “urgent action” against violent crime.

“We will be announcing tough new laws to crack down on acid attacks and knife offences,” he added.

“And as crime changes, we will change our response - our Serious Violence Strategy places a new emphasis on steering young people away from a life of crime, while continuing to promote the strongest possible law enforcement response.”