Archive for March, 2012

All together now…

Meet The BeatChief Superintendent Phillip Kay, Lloyd House, Birmingham West and Central LPU

There’s been a great deal of discussion recently in the news over proposals by some police forces, West Midlands included, to look at how they can work with businesses to help improve the service they offer to the public.

The basic idea is that by working with private companies, the police can take advantage of their expertise to work more efficiently and free officers from duties that may not necessarily require a police officer to do – standing on crime scenes or collecting CCTV for example.

Some of the coverage, however, has included suggestions that such proposals will lead to a ‘privatisation of the police‘ and could affect police accountability.

What is the reality though? For this special Meet The Beat interview I sat down with Chief Superintendent Phillip Kay, head of the West Midlands Police Business Partnering Program, to ask exactly what the program is all about and to address some of the concerns raised.

Chief Superintendent Phillip Kay

Welcome to Meet The Beat, as we usually ask can you tell us a little about your background with the police? Where have you worked prior to starting in your current role?

I have twenty three years police service, I started as a PC in Coventry back in 1988. I did a variety of roles there in uniform and CID, I was promoted to sergeant at Steelhouse Lane and then went back to Coventry as a sergeant. I then went on promotion to inspector with Northumbria police and spent six years up there working in Sunderland, South Shields and at Headquarters and was promoted to Chief Inspector.

I came back to West Midlands Police and worked as a Detective Chief Inspector in Wolverhampton before being promoted to Superintendent and being responsible for covert policing. After that I became Chief Superintendent in charge of operations for a while before becoming an LPU commander up until last December.

I then started on the Business Partnering Program having been asked to run the Program by the Chief Constable – I see it as an exciting and challenging opportunity to be at the cutting edge of British policing. I’m motivated by serving the public, making a difference and working out how to do things better and I think the program represents a fantastic opportunity for us.

I understand why people are a bit unsure and uncertain about it but I think the potential for us to do things differently is massive.

Much of what you do as a PC is incredibly similar to what I did as a PC in Coventry twenty three years ago – I know some of that will remain fairly constant but the world that we police has changed massively, the rise of social media and access to the internet for example, has changed hugely and yet the way we go about our business in many ways has remained the same and so part of the drive behind the program is to transform that and do things differently.

Okay, so leading on from that, how could you best sum up what the business partnering program is?

Well let me start off by saying what it’s not – some of the media coverage suggested that this was about us handing over patrolling the streets to security guards, about handing over the arrest of members of the public to private companies, about us privatising policing and it’s not that at all so the public can be reassured that their neighbourhood officers and PCSOs will continue to be their neighbourhood team and that officers will continue to attend to emergency calls. None of that will change and we’re not about to hand that over.

In terms of the companies we’re looking to partner with, this isn’t just private security companies – many of the companies that have expressed an interest are world leaders in IT, Human Resources, business transformation – really big names. It’s about looking at the way we do business, from start to finish, and asking how could we do that differently? How could we do that better?

We’re looking from receipt of a call for service up to an incident being resolved – are there ways that we could radically transform that so that the public get a better service, so the public get more choice?

To give an example, at the moment if you want to report a crime you’re essentially limited to picking up a phone or walking into a front office. What opportunities does the internet and technology present to people? If you want to track the progress of an investigation at the moment the only way to do so is to pick up a phone. When I order products online I can track the progress of the parcel anywhere in the world – why can’t a victim of crime have access to a system like that for investigation updates?

So we’ve talked about the way we do things at the moment and the way we might be looking at doing things in the future – are you able to say how you could see us doing things differently in, say, five years?

This is a difficult question to answer, partly because we’re currently in a formal procurement process. A key stage of that is called competitive dialogue which is where we sit down with a potential partner and we share information with them about what we do so we’ll say, for example, this is how we investigate a certain crime, this is how successful we are, and they then come up with proposals for innovative ways through which we could do business.

It’s difficult to answer the question because if we had the answers now, we’d not be looking for partners in the first place. Essentially the position is that we think there are proposals out there that are going to be radically different and the exciting thing is waiting to see how that progresses.

What we’re really keen to do is doing as we’re doing now, talking to people like yourself and other operational cops because there will be people out there who have really good ideas and proposals that we can make use of*.

A lot of the media coverage had focused on the document published which gave details on the type of roles that we are considering as fit for involvement with private companies. There was some concern as the list of activities including responding to incidents, detaining suspects and investigating crimes – can you tell us a little more about that document and are those areas that are being considered as capable for being taken on by private companies?

That’s referring to the notice placed in the Official Journal of the European Union which is a document that we published to inform the market that we want to procure services.

What we used to list the services that we were considering is something called the police glossary which is a document operating on a range of different levels and sets out activities that are undertaken by the police and enables us to draw comparisons between what an activity costs in place in comparison with elsewhere.

The idea of keeping it broad was partly because you can’t add things later – once the document is published you’d have to start the procurement process again if you wanted to add something.

Which would have an implication on cost?

Absolutely, so we kept it broad because what we wanted to do was to encourage providers to be as creative and as innovative as possible. It has never been our intention that a private security guard would go on patrol in a neighbourhood, however in terms of patrol, is there something that the private industry could provide that would help officers patrol more efficiently? Quite possibly because, for example, through the analysis of data in an advanced way we might be able to better understand when and where we need to be patrolling and gain a better control over our resources.

That was why the notice was so broad – so that we didn’t have to make costly additions which may slow the process down and because we don’t want to look at our business in a restricted way.

Thinking about crime reporting it’s important to consider how many departments become involved – response, the contact centre, forensics, the Crime Services Team – so many different points are touched. Rather than looking at what we do in a function by function way, we want to look at the end to end process to see where we can make an impact.

Are there other forces who are already working with private partners? What are they doing and how does it work?

Twenty other forces (out of forty three) already have relationships with private organisations, predominately in an outsourcing way. This is where you take a chunk of your business and give it to someone else, they then do it do the same standard but for less money.

This is different from what we want to do – we’re not just trying to do things for less, we’re trying to do them better. Other forces have outsourced shared services, custody suites are a big one and Cleveland have outsourced their contact centres. There are lots of examples already of the police working with the private sector and so the concept is not new – we think that what we’re trying to achieve with the partnering arrangement and the outcome of this relationship is different.

A lot of the discussion around the proposals of the business partnering program have surrounded the concept of ‘privatisation of policing’ – is this the likely outcome of the program?

Okay, two things – it’s not privatisation, it’s not outsourcing and I think what’s been put in the media and what people’s general perception about the proposals are that they’re about privatising policing and it’s not. It is about trying to work with a private sector partner who may have money to invest, intellectual property (skills, experience, expertise), IT, that we don’t have that by combining their skills, experience and resources together with ours gets us to a position where we’re able to deliver an enhanced service to the public. It’s not privatisation – I really want to stress that.

There’s also been some concern that where the reliance on private companies increases, the accountability of the police force and the Chief Constable decreases – is this an issue?

Accountability is a key issue and the Chief is really clear that he will always remain accountable to the Police and Crime Commissioner and the community of the West Midlands for the service that is provided. In any contract that we draw up and in any partnership arrangement that developments, this accountability will be at the very heart of it and the Chief will retain control of those resources.

Is the need to save money an influence on the business partnering program?

The reason for the program first and foremost is about improving service. We do need to be mindful that in this Comprehensive Spending Review we have plans in place that will enable us to save £126m over a four year period however the business partnering program has not been established to make these savings as they’ve already been planned for.

We don’t know what lies ahead though and so doing our business in a way that makes the very best use of our resources makes absolute sense and helps us prepare for the future.

What sort of timescales are we looking at for any changes that may be introduced? Are we at the beginning of the program?

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a done deal – any changes are subject to police authority scrutiny as we progress and will have to be signed off by a Police and Crime Commissioner. We will be engaging and consulting with the public as we go along and we would like an informed debate so that the public know what this is about. People need to understand that it’s not about privatisation, it’s not outsourcing and it’s not about private security patrols on the streets of the West Midlands – that’s absolutely crucial.

Some of the proposals would see front line officers relieved of duties that can tie them up for long periods but that do not necessarily require a police officer to do – watching crime scenes and retrieving CCTV footage for example. Might cell watches be included too?

This is about protecting the front line. The more efficiently and effectively we can perform the back and middle office functions, the better informed we are and able to use technology then the better off we will be.

There’s a danger of using specific examples as we don’t want to give people the impression that the examples are definitely going to become reality, however, imagine you had a tablet PC and you attended a burglary. You could take a photograph of the point of entry, complete the crime report and statement electronically with a digital signature, email the details off to CID and forensics straight away and then you could email the victim their crime number and some crime prevention advice too. You could give the victim an access code so that they could track the progress of the investigation online and notify their insurance company straightaway.

Such a system would be significantly cheaper and the victim will have received a much better quality of service. In addition you wouldn’t as an officer have to come back into the station as everything’s been done at the scene and you patrol time is increased. This is a hypothetical example but it does show the potential for making positive changes to how we operate through working with private companies who may be able to provide the equipment and expertise to implement such a system.

*If you’re a member of WMP reading this blog and would like to provide feedback on Business Partnering or have a suggestion on how we could improve our service, please drop an internal email to Sgt. 7857 Heidi Bell.

Maybe she’ll pick him out again…

You lot again?

Ask anyone what it is that police do all day and the following things are likely to feature in one way or another – driving through piles of cardboard boxes, chasing bad guys across rooftops, throwing our badges at the lieutenant, crewing up with someone who only has one day until retirement, eating doughnuts, lining up dodgy suspects for an ID parade.

Whilst we do indeed do all of the above on a regular basis, it’s the ID parade that I’m going to concentrate on in this post. What are they, why do we do them and are they really like they look in the movies?

No, they’re not.

Before we get to the procedure itself though, why do we have to do them in the first place?

An ID parade is basically a process that helps us either strengthen the case against a suspect or eliminate them from an investigation. They’ll be held when a suspect disputes that he or she was the person seen by a witness during the commission of an offence.

To give an example, I’ll call upon my go to criminal, Billy*, who has just been seen by two witnesses running out of a butchers on the high street clutching strings of stolen sausages. The police arrive at the scene, take notes of Billy’s description from the two witnesses and then after a brief search locate Billy around the corner. As he matches the description given he’s arrested under suspicion of theft.

Back at the station Billy is interviewed and decides to deny that he was involved in the incident. “Well officers, the awful criminal responsible for this crime certainly sounds like he looks a lot like me but I had nothing to do with it” he says. He’s asked if he’s willing to take part in an ID parade and he agrees, hence an Inspector comes to see him and formally serves the written request for the parade.

It’s at this point that many people might think the officers will begin calling around for people who look a bit like Billy to come and stand next to him in a line up.

What actually happens is that Billy is sat down in the same photo booth that would have been used to take his custody photo. A member of the custody staff strikes a few keys on the keyboard, a short video is made of Billy’s face and is then sent remotely to the ID bureau at Police HQ. For Billy’s involvement, this is the ID parade done and dusted.

At the ID bureau the staff access their database and select eleven other similar looking video captures which they put together as part of an ID package. This package is then sent back to the officers so that it can be shown to the witnesses.

As the officers who are investigating the theft are not allowed to be involved in the ID parade (to avoid any suggestion that they could have influenced witnesses), they ask an independent officer to meet the two witnesses at the police station and separately show them the ID film. Having picked out Billy as the same person they saw nicking the sausages, they complete statements saying as much and with these the case against Billy is strengthened and he should be able to be sent to court.

The rules surrounding identification procedures are covered by Code D of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and whilst the above overview is hopefully fairly straightforward, ID can be a fairly complicated area to get your head around. It can also be fun with us occasionally having to dress suspects up in funny hats and scarfs to hide scars and tattoos!

If you’re asked as a witness to take part in an ID parade then it’s certainly not something that should cause any concern. It’s one of the few areas of policing that isn’t really like it is in the movies – no frightening criminals and no one way glass. More likely its a cup of tea, a comfy ID suite with sofas and ten minutes spent strengthening the case against the bad guys.

* For other adventures involving Billy, see this post about public order offences and this one about police custody.

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time…

One of the most innovative, and popular, users of Twitter is the force helicopter but how can we improve our use of social media in the future?

As a quick intro, the below post is on the topic of how organisations like the police might make better use of social media in the future. As such it’s likely to appeal mainly to those working in this field. If you’re not in that bracket and fancy reading anyway, please feel free to do so. Otherwise you have my permission to hop off this page and use the Internet to search for videos of talking dogs.

Over the past three years or so I think it’s fair to say that police forces have really awoken to the possibilities of using social media to help engage with the public. I’ve written in the past about both the general benefits of embracing new forms of communication and on how it can be useful in specific incidents, and I continue to be a keen advocate of the medium.

West Midlands Police, the Greater Manchester and Sussex forces have driven forward the expansion of emergency services using social media and we’ve seen some great examples of it being used to help break down barriers between police and public.

Taking my own force as an example, our official Twitter feed has over 30,000 followers, our Facebook page over 10,000 fans and videos on our YouTube channel have been viewed in excess of 1,400,000 times. We actively encourage officers and departments to get involved (see the ever expanding list for examples), have some of our very highest ranking officers using Twitter (ACC Forsyth and ACC Beale) and we have won national recognition for our work.

As the use of social media grows, both by police forces and the public, where might we take the medium in the future? How might we improve our usage and by doing so, improve upon the service we can offer to the public?

Below and in no particular order are a few of my thoughts on where I see opportunities to make fuller use of social media by emergency services, partner agencies and their users. Not wanting this blog to be too long, I’ll try be brief and encourage feedback from anyone with an interest in the area:

  • Improve direct communication between police leadership and public – One of the key benefits of social media is that it affords us the opportunity to make use of a two way channel of communication between police and public. This can be particularly useful when employed by senior officers who are in a position to give a general overview of policing an area as they can get their message out directly to the people living in that area. To illustrate this point, I can give an idea about individual incidents from the point of view of a response officer but I can’t speak for the Walsall LPU as a whole as I’m not in a position to do so. Superintendent Fraser, however, can do so and makes good use of Twitter to keep the public informed about developments in Walsall. Other excellent examples of social media being used at this level are Superintendent Payne and Chief Superintendent Bourner.
  • Make better use of online beat surgeries – In the past I’ve ran a couple of ‘Tweet & Greet’ events (see here for an example) during which I’ve taken over a Twitter feed for an hour and encouraged people to ask questions live. These have been very successful and shown the potential for involving people who may not otherwise have contact with the police. Whilst opportunities to meet officers at beat surgeries are invaluable, virtual meetings can run alongside conventional events and help build closer bonds between neighbourhood teams and those living in the neighbourhoods.
  • Closer ties between social media and investigations, appeals – Amongst the many applications of social media, one that is perhaps the least developed is the potential for the use of the direct channel of communication to help investigate crime. Traditional poster appeals and door to door enquiries can be supported by social media campaigns that not only have the capability to reach more people but also can be targeted at a specific audience. During our response to the riots, Operation View made extensive use of the website to publish CCTV stills for identification with the public encouraged to contact us and help with the investigation. For future investigations, the application of Facebook and other such sites should feature early on as a formal part of investigations to help identify witnesses etc.
  • Share knowledge internally – Social media works well for sharing information with the public but equally so can be used to communicate with staff inside the organisation. We already have good examples of it being used in this manner with DCC Thompson maintaining a blog to update staff on issues concerning the force and with Inspector Brown’s mental health blog featuring a Q&A written for the benefit of police officers. Facilitating communication within the force can be of great use (I’ve lost count of the amount of times of contacted PC Jennings through Twitter with traffic law questions) and it’d be beneficial to identify other posts and departments which could use social media to help further understanding of their roles.
  • Make better use of Facebook – As far as social media sites go, Facebook is by far the biggest, most used network with three quarters of the UK population holding an account. Twitter is important too although at the current time, there are less than half the number of Twitter users than there are those on Facebook hence when it comes to where efforts are best concentrated, it would appear that Facebook is the site we should be focusing on.
  • More work to publicise social media accounts – Regularly updating a Twitter feed or Facebook page with good quality information is all very well but if it only reaches a small amount of people, how useful is the service? Once forces have identified people and departments interested in using social media, there needs to be some proactive work to help bring the account to the public’s attention and attract followers.
  • Appeal for more users within force – Looking at how the use of social media has grown within the force and speaking to other partner agencies using it, it becomes apparent that the growth is not necessarily even. Some departments have taken to it readily, others less so and I think this can partly be explained by the fact that the best profiles are maintained by those people who are open to the idea of using social media and are keen to explore it. Such people are not necessarily evenly distributed hence neither will the accounts be. As social media becomes more established (something helped greatly by more senior officers using it), coverage will likely improve with it being accepted that it is through social media that the majority of the public communicate and so it is beneficial to maintain an online presence.
  • Help officers understand social media – Even if police officers do not use social media themselves, an understanding of how it works is important when it comes to investigating reports of crimes being committed through the use of social networking sites. Without such an understanding officers are likely to find themselves at a disadvantage with the quality of an investigation being limited by a lack of knowledge about how social networks operate and what steps can be taken to prevent offences.
  • Be adventurous – Social media sites are constantly updating themselves and call upon us as users to be ready to play around with the new features to make the most of what the sites offer. We need to be alive to the new features added and be quick to work out how best we can use them to help advance our ambitions. Chief Inspector Blakeman, as an example, has made innovative use of online broadcasting (Bambuster in particular) to inform people in Coventry about what their police is doing and really leads the field in this area.

I call this number for a data date…

An example of one of our higher end computer systems...

Going into any West Midlands Police control room is much like walking onto the set of a futuristic science fiction epic. Operators wearing silver foil spacesuits float weightless in front of giant touchscreen displays, using their minds to control the flow of information pulsing from the infinitely-powerful quantum computer that’s buried twenty stories under the station. Data is beamed through brightly coloured fibre optic trunking whose neon glow illuminates the smooth, unbroken white surfaces of the walls. Robots dash about distributing protein injections to their human masters and silently plot the day that they will one day take over and reduce mankind to their slaves.

Okay, perhaps it’s not quite like this but even so, IT is a bit part of policing and makes a huge difference to how we’re able to deliver our service to the public. The systems we utilise range from expensive bits of software that have been tailor made to our specifications, right the way down to publicly available applications that everyone has access to and that can have an equally important contribution to make to our effectiveness.

Incidents are managed using a system called ‘OASIS‘ which is a little like an instant messenger just for emergency services. A ‘log’ of an incident is created on the system when a call is received from the public which is then transferred from our call centre at Bournville Lane over to the control room of the area in which the incident is happening. Resources can then be dispatched accordingly and a record kept on who’s where and how a job has been dealt with. This system is linked in with other emergency services so that we can all communicate with each other to co-ordinate our response.

Beyond OASIS, the control room have access to a variety of other systems that help officers out on the streets. An extensive mapping database is invaluable in finding hidden away addresses and the ability to look at past call outs to a premises helps give officers a heads up as to what they’re likely to encounter when they land. Officers can access the Police National Computer via their radios for checks and in addition to this can have people, vehicles and addresses run through the force’s own intelligence database to see what prior involvement there has been with the old bill.

Of course it’s not only the sophisticated, expensive systems that help us fight crime. We also use a variety of free programs too.

Many briefings are built around mapping services such as Google Maps and StreetView, the latter being fantastic for helping us survey an area without drawing attention to our intentions. Many times I’ve called up the mapping facility on my phone to help find addresses the Sat Nav struggles with and have even used it when asked directions by members of the public. As a police officer I’m obviously expected to know every single road in the country and whilst I do everything I can to keep people thinking this is the case, secretly I’ll be tapping away on my phone for answers.

Further to this, Google itself is a great tool to have at my fingertips and I’m forever referring to it to find contact numbers of organisations that I want to put in touch with victims of crime.

IT is there to support our policing instincts and to help us work in an more efficient manner. It hasn’t replaced the magnifying glass and deerstalker and unlikely ever will, it does though mean that we are in a stronger position to get the bad guys onto the right side of the bars. It means our bark is equal to our byte.

The road is long, with many a winding turn…

Meet The BeatPC Mick Jennings, Tally Ho Training Centre, Birmingham West & Central LPU

It’s Meet The Beat time again and this time around I put some questions to Mick Jennings, one of our traffic trainers. Think ‘Road Wars’ combined with twenty eight years worth of experience and you’re somewhere close!

If you’re interested in Mick’s role and road policing in general, please check out Mick’s twitter feed on which he both gives regular updates and also encourages traffic law questions.

PC Mick Jennings

Welcome to Meet The Beat Mick, to start things off can you tell us what your role with West Midlands Police involves?

Thank you for inviting me, Richard. My job is to train officers in all things traffic.

When officers join the Force they are trained to a basic level in all areas to enable them to perform their role competently. This includes traffic, or as it is often referred to, Roads Policing. Should the officer need to develop this foundation level of knowledge, this is where I come in.

The courses I run range from authorising an officer to use a certain piece of equipment, such as the station evidential breath testing machine or a speed detection laser, right though to the investigative courses for our Traffic Department such as Family Liaison Officer or Senior Investigating Officer. Actually, as we speak, I’m just putting the finishing touches to a three week Traffic Patrol Officers’ Course for our colleagues from the Central Motorway Policing Group.

Okay, what had you been doing before joining the traffic department? Had you always wanted to be a traffic officer?

I have always wanted to be a Traffic Officer. I think people fail to understand the importance of patrolling the roads. Firstly, everyone uses them, including criminals, so stop enough of the right sorts of vehicle and you’ll be keeping the Custody Officer busy. Secondly, but probably far more importantly, over 20,000 road users are killed or seriously injured each year so enforcing the rules of the road is paramount in our drive to reduce this figure.

Like everyone, I started as shift officer and my route to the Department was varied with different roles, including a spell as Football Liaison Officer, planning policing operations at Aston Villa. And yes, I am!

And what appealed to you about joining the police in the first place? Had you had other jobs before joining?

I joined the Police Cadets straight from school and then the regulars when I was 18 ½ to the day, so no, I’ve not had any other job, something which may change in eighteen months time when I retire after 30 years service.

What appealed to me about the job? Well, my father was a Policeman, his father was a Policeman and my daughter is in the job too, so it’s a bit of a family tradition. Many people I meet say they wouldn’t want to do my job, but it’s the best job in the world! Yes it can be a bit dangerous and harrowing at times, even a bit boring on occasion, but I’ve worked with some of the most fantastic people over my career, been involved in many memorable incidents and experienced things that some people can only imagine.

So what does an average day as a traffic trainer involve, if there is any such thing as an ‘average’ day?

I must say, the pace has slowed a bit since I came into training. Whereas I used to race round, lights flashing and sirens blaring, using the steering wheel as a desk, I’ve now got an office and classroom. I never thought I’d say it, but these days I’m an eight to four, Monday to Friday, weekends off type. At least my wife now gets to enjoy weddings and parties instead of having to arrive late or leave early dependant on my shifts.

Fortunately some of my courses mean that I have to put the stab vest on and get out there, and I’m a great believer in trainers not losing touch with the real world, so occasionally I do get out there and put a shift in.

And what about the vehicles you use? Are they special in any way and what sort of equipment do traffic officers carry?

I think most people will have seen Traffic cars on the TV and how rapid they are, but the cars themselves are standard production models and are not ‘souped up’ or ‘chipped’ in any way. What makes them special is the care we give them and the skill of the Police driver.

The equipment is pretty standard in that they have forward and rear facing cameras, average speed detection equipment, Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) vehicle tracking devices etc. In the back of the car will be cones, signs, lamps, first aid kit, and a hollow spike tyre deflation system, such as Stinger.

As an experienced traffic officer, is there any advice that you’d like to give members of the public when it comes to driving? Any lessons you’ve picked up over your years on the road?

I always remember something my dad told me, “Treat every other road user like a complete idiot and expect them to do the unexpected.” From experience, I believe the majority of collisions would have been avoided had the driver recognised the potential danger at an earlier stage but was either entering the situation too fast, or was distracted.

What should motorists do if they see an emergency services vehicle behind them trying to get past?

Firstly, don’t panic. The driver of the emergency vehicle has probably already seen you and is planning how to pass. If you suddenly hit the brakes or swerve it’s not going to help – gently reduce your speed and move to the nearside.

What would you say has been the most memorable thing you’ve done since joining the police?

It’s difficult to pick one incident from 28 years. I’ve policed strikes, riots, protests, football matches, as well as the streets of Birmingham. I’ve dealt with the death and destruction that mankind inflicts on itself, locked up all sorts of people for all manner of things, been commended and been complained about. But one thing that surpasses them all was the day I walked into the front office of Aston Police Station and set eyes on my wife for the first time.

Wearing the inside out…

You'd be barking mad to miss the next Walsall Police Station open day!

If you’d have attended Walsall Police Station on September 25th last year, you may have noticed a few things were slightly out of place.

First of all someone had left the doors open to the custody block and people were coming and going as they pleased. In the underground car park the army had set up a fort, a child was walking round with a snake on her shoulders and there was a helicopter perched on the roof.

What exactly was happening?

To this day I can’t explain why there was a snake on the loose (an actual snake with scales, suspicious eyes and (I assume) venom) but the other odd little happenings were all part of our incredibly successful inaugural station open day.

I think I enjoyed the day pretty much as much as some of the young kids who were tearing around making siren noises and the feedback from those who attended was fantastic with people really enjoying the chance to find out what we do and meet the partners that we work with.

Check out my blog on the last open day and the two sets of photos over on my Facebook profile (here and here) to get an idea of how well it went.

If we’d have asked the army cadets present, I’m sure they would have told us that you never reinforce failure. As the open day was such a success, we’re keen to repeat it and as such I’m pleased to say that another station open day is in the workings for the coming months.

Now I can’t say exactly when we’re looking at holding it just yet, being in the planning stage though what we are looking for is some feedback on what you’d like to see at the next event.

If you came last year, what did you enjoy, what would you like to see more of and was there anything that didn’t work for you? I know the police dog and taser demonstrations were very popular and the constant ringing of the panic alarm in the custody block less so but how else could we improve?

We had lots of partner agencies manning stands at the last event and folk helping out with catering etc – might you be interested in getting involved yourself somehow and taking a role in contributing to the success of the next open day?

We’d really appreciate your feedback on how to make the next open day the best ever and so if you’ve any thoughts, please feel free to get in touch.

You can do so via a range of channels – leave a comment on this blog or on the Walsall Police Facebook profile or alternatively get in touch with either myself, Chief Inspector Farley or Superintendent Fraser via Twitter. We’re using the hashtag #walsallopenday to tie in any mentions on the station open day so be sure to drop it into your tweets!

Too much alcohol…

There’s been a lot of talk in the news recently about proposals to tackle the negative impact of excess alcohol consumption by introducing a minimum unit price. Plans to introduce supporting legislation are already in motion in the Scottish Parliament and David Cameron appears keen to introduce a similar system in England.

As it’s the health and emergency services that tend to bare the brunt of the problems that stem from people drinking themselves into a stupor, I dare say that changes aimed at tackling the issue will be welcomed.

To illustrate why binge drinking causes such an issue for us, and by extension for the public who foot the bill, consider these examples to show how alcohol regular impacts on the service we are able to offer-

Example one – An aggressive, drunken male is brought into custody.

As drunks rarely see reason, repeated requests for him to leave a location have been ignored and as such he has had to be forcibly restrained and arrested. Additional officers have to escort him to the cell block and ensure that he is admitted into custody safely. A medical practitioner has to be called to attend the station to assess when the male will be fit to be dealt with and will likely say that he’ll need six or seven hours to sober up. Welfare checks will need to be conducted at regular intervals and should he begin with withdraw from alcohol, officers may be called back to the station to escort him to hospital thereby committing them for several hours.

Example two – A drunken female is the victim of a domestic assault

We attend and an arrest is made. As soon as the prisoner has been allocated a cell we return to the scene with a view to obtaining a statement. As the female is intoxicated we take a short ‘holding statement’ confirming that she would like to pursue a complaint but is too drunk to provide an account at the current time. As such rather than being able to investigate the matter there and then, other officers have to re-attend later to talk to her when sober. A statement may eventually be obtained although its accuracy is likely compromised as she struggles to remember the particulars of the assault. Meanwhile the prisoner occupies a valuable cell space.

Example three – In the early hours of the morning officers encounter a drunken female slumped on the pavement after a night out

Being vulnerable and alone, we have a duty to ensure that the girl makes it home safely. There’s no sign of her friends and she’s barely able to tell us her name, let alone where she lives. What are we able to do? If her condition justifies it an ambulance will be called and she’ll end up taking a place in the queue at A&E. If we are able to get some sense out of her we do our best to reunite her with her friends who can take care of her. Either way officers have been tied up with a problem self-inflicted by drinking too much.

Examples such of these will be familiar to officers across the country and as you can imagine, can pose a significant strain on our resources. Whilst we’re spending time sorting out similar issues, we’re not able to answer the calls for service that urgently need our attention.

Solutions don’t come easily but when people’s lives are at risk – an estimated 200,000 avoidable alcohol related deaths over the next twenty years – we are compelled to find an answer.

In my view minimum pricing is certainly a step in the right direction. I’ll not name the brands but most of the problem drinkers we encounter are found necking the same products, favoured for their balance between bargain price and high alcoholic content.

The strategy is far from an elixir though and if we are to be successful in saving the legion of those at risk from excessive alcohol consumption, I can see that the following considerations will be equally as important -

  • Good support network to address alcoholism and its causes – Pricing alcohol so that it is outside people’s ability to binge on it should help but why do people want to binge in the first place? We already have charities such as Addaction working inside our cell blocks, and where drinkers accept that they have an issue and genuinely want to change, success can be achieved with dedicated counseling and medical support.*
  • Responsible retailing – The Licensing Act provides a good framework for the sale of alcohol and gives us power to deal with issues arising from problem selling. Traders – particularly off licences – have an important role to play as they stand at the very source of the problem and more confidence in turning away problem customers may help.
  • Tackling our drinking culture –  The big issue and one to which there’s no ready answer – why is it that in the UK drinking to excess is seen to be synonymous with having a good time? Why can alcohol be sold cheaply on the Continent and not attract problems on the scale that we see here?

With the cost of alcohol related crime estimated at around £15 billion a year, the total spend including health care and loss of productivity perhaps being as high as £25 billion and when there’s such an economic need to make savings, both the financial and human costs of the issue have to be addressed conclusively. To put these figures into context, we spent around £5 billion on policing last year.

Minimum pricing will hopefully help, no one’s saying it will solve the problem alone, however with such a crippling expense any step towards tackling alcohol abuse is a step in the right direction.

*On the subject of support charities, I was recently doing a cell watch on a prisoner who told me he drinks thirty pints of beer a day. He also told me that he had voluntarily submitted himself to an alcohol clinic and was slowly seeing improvements – there was light at the end of the tunnel.

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