Julia Mulligan: Don’t let the police blue line get thinner for rural people

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ON the whole, the police do a good job of providing the same quality service regardless of race, age, religion, nationality, gender, sexuality; it shouldn’t and doesn’t matter.

However, as austerity bites, providing a ‘universal service’ is becoming more difficult and the police are reassessing how they deploy resources.

This includes how the police serve our rural communities. Research across England and Wales undertaken by the National Rural Crime Network, which I chair, was published last month. The results were striking.  We now have clear evidence that people in rural areas are significantly less satisfied with the police than their urban counterparts; they are much more worried about becoming a victim of crime and often don’t feel the police are dealing with things that matter most to them. 

I have raised my concerns with the police and expect them to show me how the apparent gap in service between our rural and urban areas can be closed, austerity notwithstanding.  I am sure other ‘rural’ Commissioners up and down the country are be doing the same.

My point isn’t that policing the Yorkshire Dales, for example, is any more important than the centre of Sheffield; just that there needs to be a fair approach to shaping services. This is because the police routinely assess the particular needs of different communities and develop their service accordingly – for example young people, potential victims of hate crime, those at risk of other specific types of crime.

My argument is that people in rural areas have distinct needs and the police need to consider them fully.

The problem with the current process is that police resources are often planned by analysing where the police are physically needed the most, coupled with assessing the ‘threat, risk and harm’ posed by certain circumstances. Therefore, by definition, rural areas will have less demand because there are fewer people. The counter argument also applies – where there are more people, there is more crime and more crimes of a serious nature.

It is therefore logical for urban areas to receive the necessary police response and proactive crime prevention. However, should money get a lot tighter, which is possible depending on Government announcements in the next two months, this ‘demand-led’ model will inexorably lead to an erosion of rural services.

At what point does this stop? How disaffected do the public have to be? How much loss of confidence in their police service do rural communities have to endure? What can be done to mitigate the risks and effects?

North Yorkshire, in particular, is characterised by its rurality and it needs to find a solution to this seemingly intractable challenge.

To me, not doing so presents real risks, both in terms of confidence in the police and the impact on victims, which can be far greater when people feel less safe.  

The vulnerability of living in an isolated area comes to the fore, and if you’re a farmer. Burglary or theft, for instance, is not just a violation of your private property but also a threat to your livelihood, that of your family and your business. 

Just because you live somewhere off the beaten track, doesn’t mean the service you receive from the police should be any the less. 

Looking ahead, there are things that can be done to reduce the risks. Technology will help; for example the police service is developing ‘live links’ into the courts so people won’t have to travel far to give evidence.

Significant investments in mobile devices are being made so police officers can stay out and about for longer.

Improvements in automated number plate recognition technology will help the police better identify criminals using the roads. Mobile police stations will go to people, rather than people going to them. More will be done online, such as firearms licensing, getting updates and reporting non-emergency incidents and information.

Inevitably, the police will have to stop doing certain things, for instance, keeping police stations open that receive very few visitors will become all but impossible without new ways of working.

However, perhaps the most important opportunity is for the police to build on the strength and resilience of local communities. In some areas, people know their local police officer or PCSO. These communities – whether urban or rural – report strong satisfaction levels, but this varies and as teams get smaller (as they inevitably will), more pressure will be applied.

In North Yorkshire, the Chief Constable and I are clear that local neighbourhood policing teams are our ‘crown jewels’. These teams are set to become even more important. They are the visible face of the service and the police need to consider the way they work in the light of fewer resources all round – not just policing but local councils and others too.

Importantly, communities are also willing to work together to make their neighbourhood a better place. This raises the possibility of a greater role for volunteers. There is a precedence here; by the end of the year, we will have more voluntary Special Constables than ever before and Neighbourhood Watch and similar schemes are going from strength to strength, both of which provide a strong basis for the future. These are great qualities, and traits the police should be able to use as a foundation for services.

Harnessing all of these opportunities to the full will help the police remain a truly ‘universal’ service, no matter who you are or where you live.

Julia Mulligan is police and crime commissioner for North Yorkshire.