Monday, October 30, 2006

The lesser spotted policeman

When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, bumping into the local bobby was a common occurrence. Down at the rec, on the building sites for the giant new estates (where we used to play), outside school, by the church, in the high street, on the green, at the pond. Wherever we used to go you could almost be certain that at some point you'd bump into PC George. He knew us all by sight and by name. He knew our parents and where we lived.

I remember one particular autumn when, with our imaginations fired by the exploits of Ivan Mauger and Peter Collins, myself and three friends found a nice patch of grass on which to practice our speedway turns on our bicycles (all of which were made up of old bicycle parts cobbled together - we couldn't afford to buy new bikes back then).

I'd just completed a fine run where I'd got good speed up on the straight before flinging the rear of the bike out wide, slamming it into opposite lock as I leaned over to a fearsome degree, my left foot dragging slightly behind to stabilise me. The bike slew round gracefully, but I left the recovery slightly too long, the back end slid away completely as I crumpled into the wet, muddy grass. I looked towards my mates for approval only to see them hightailing it off down the footpath - a look back over my shoulder revealed the reason why. PC George was standing by his bike looming over me.

As PC George walked back home with me I knew I was in for it. There was no clip round the ear, no demands to know who the others were (he knew anyway), no thoughts of taking me to the station. Just take me home and tell my parents what I'd done - they'd deal with it in the proper manner. Part of my punishment involved being taken down to the scene of the crime and apologising to the "owner" of the patch of grass. He wasn't actually the owner - the council was - but he was the council house tenant who mowed and maintained this particular patch of pristine grass that now resembled a Somme battlefield.

Back then, every village had a PC George. He wasn't the only bobby in the village by a long way - I knew of several others and a sergeant - but he was the one who knew us kids best. His beat was where we lived. No doubt the other bobbies covered similar beats and similarly knew their kids and streets equally as well as PC George. The only copper we saw in a car was the sergeant. I even remember the Austin 1100 he used even though I rarely saw it being driven.

The point is, that back then, seeing a policeman wasn't just a daily occurrence - it was several times a daily occurrence. Now, days or weeks may go by without me ever seeing a policeman not in a car. They cruise around in top of the range Volvo estates, loaded with technology and yet completely unaware of who or what they are driving past. Outside of their "community" contacts, they don't know anyone and nobody knows them.

And yet, we have more police than we have ever had.

A few years ago I lived, briefly, in a village called Datchet. Being a village in it's own right, it isn't really Slough, but it has a Slough post code. It is a pretty village alongside the River Thames. It has a number of historic buildings, a fabulous church and a pretty green.

Typical of a new resident I wanted to learn a little about the place I moved into. So I trotted off to the local library and found a book about Datchet. I flicked through the book and was stopped in my tracks by one particular photograph of Datchet police force from the 1930's. There were around a dozen policemen in the picture - some were probably special constables, but even so it was clear that Datchet had a strong police presence. You may not be surprised to know that the crime rate back then was negligible.

The Datchet I had moved into had one policeman - and he covered the villages of Datchet, Horton and Wraysbury. You may not be surprised to know that crime in Datchet was rife. A lot of it was petty low level stuff. Vandalism of cars and property were common, thefts from cars a daily event. Burglaries a regular occurrence. The local garage was raided regularly and was even subject to an armed robbery on one occasion. As soon as the 6 months of my tenancy was up - I moved out.

During those 6 months I had had every window in my car smashed and replaced - the drivers side window 4 times, the rear window twice. I used to get a discount as I was such a regular customer. On one occasion, a vandal had smashed the drivers side window, opened up the door and relieved himself onto the drivers seat, centre console, dashboard and footwell. The wipers had been stolen and replaced twice. Both door locks had been forced and replaced and the car had deep gouges along the sides where frustrated thieves had raked their screwdrivers after failing to get inside.

And yet we have more police than we have ever had.

I'm not going to deny this is a fact. it is no doubt true that we have more people employed in the police "services" than ever before. The reality, though, is that far too many of them don't do policing. They work in specialist units, rarely leaving their air-conditioned offices, hardly coming into contact with the public and purely reactive to events rather than acting as a deterrent to crime. Others work in units dedicated to collating statistics to targets.

Those that do do policing are increasingly bound to the desk by paperwork or stuck in courtrooms for long periods attending trials that get postponed as the defendant has found something better to do that day.

The basic mission of the police is to PREVENT crime and disorder, said Peel.

If only.

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