London is poised to move on to the next iteration of virtualising its policing, following the publication of the first of a series of consultations on police basing requirements in the capital. The plans effectively place community support officers, aka 'Blunkett's Bobbies' as the primary 'customer interface' for policing in London, while the 'real' police take a further step back, away from the public.
Small "safer neighbourhood" teams consisting of community support officers (a category of police that didn't exist until relatively recently) will operate from high street bases, largely during daylight hours. Existing conventional police stations will tend to be deemed unfit for modern policing and closed, while most police will move into new warehouse-style "patrol bases" which will be closed to the public. One of the major sales points of neighbourhood, or 'reassurance', policing was to make police more visible, and bring them closer to the public. Paradoxically, however, the latest Met plans foreground the 'make a visible difference' marketing aspect of community policing, while moving the actual police even further away from the general public.
That is not quite how the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) puts it. The MPA (in a boilerplate paragraph that has appeared in several related documents in the past few years) "is acutely aware that the estate is ageing - approximately 35 per cent of the buildings pre-dating 1935 - and many buildings are inappropriately located for today's communities... Simply upgrading or renewing individual parts of the estate is no longer an option and there is an urgent need for major change."
The actual Asset Management Plans (AMPs) for most of London's boroughs haven't yet been published, but those that have are virtually identical in terms of strategic thrust. For each borough a single, warehouse-style patrol base will be built to house "the majority of operational police officers and resources for the borough in one main building. It will also provide garaging for police vehicles and operational parking, allowing a large number of vehicle movements with minimal disruption and enabling faster response times. These bases will not be open to the public... but will bring officers and vehicles together at a single location with faster access to all parts of the borough."
The above is taken from the Camden AMP, which also plans for "review" of existing police stations and at the same time, permanent bases for the 18 safe neighbourhood teams operating in the borough. The Met plans to house safer neighbourhood teams in shopfront-style accommodation which will provide a primary contact point for the public and a base for beat policing. Custody cells will also be centralised in each borough, possibly co-located with the borough patrol base.
This gives a basic blueprint along the following lines. Most conventional policing, and most police, will be at the 'flexible warehouse' that isn't open to the public, but that is quite likely to occupy industrial estate sites. Visible policing (aside from the ones tearing around with flashing blue lights) will be in shop-style high street premises. In the case of Camden, there are currently 827 police officers, 169 police staff and 98 Community Support Officers. The latter provide visible policing mainly during daylight hours, with support bases usually closing in the evening.
Other published plans reveal similar pictures. Each intones "there will not be a 'one size fits all' solution for every borough", then proceeds to paint a picture where, starting with differing collections of property assets, each borough arrives at a remarkably similar destination. Bexley, for example, already has a central patrol base, "a modern facility built in 1994" with "reasonable" facilities. But "growing demand may place greater strain on these facilities in the future", so a "flexible warehouse-style building" may be necessary. And one might note that Bexleyheath Police Station is flawed in the sense that it is open to the public.
Enfield meanwhile already has a "24/7 Patrol Base" on an industrial estate, but has Southgate Police station (built 1970) and Winchmore Hill (1914) earmarked for closure. "The infrastructure of both of these police stations can no longer support the latest IT and communications technologies vital to effective operational policing in the 21st Century", says Enfield, stressing that "no police buildings will be closed until alternative and better-located facilities are up and operating."
According to the MPA, the consultations now beginning "will offer local communities the unique opportunity to make their voices heard in the drive to make the police service responsive to their needs." But given that very little of the Met property blueprint looks even slightly negotiable, this all looks - appropriately enough - like a virtual consultation. ®
* Hackney, home to several Reg hacks, has sadly yet to get its act together with an AMP. But it does provide a splendid example of reassurance policing in action, here. This policing "success" involved using a metal detector to search 1,400 students. The college in question "has never had a problem with knife crime", but nevertheless invited the police to do this. The police found no knives or weapons, and Safer Neighbourhoods Inspector Graham Simpson, describing the police's "targeted, proactive approach", commented: "The knife arch operation enabled us to engage with young people, create the feeling of a safe learning environment for students free from fear and intimidation, and reinforced both ours and the college's zero tolerance policy towards the possession of knives and other weapons." Presumably being herded through a metal detector at 8.30am makes you feel engaged, and free from fear and intimidation...