Cambridge: Policing

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Policing - or rather the stunning lack of it

October 2001 One can expect to see at most one foot patrol per year. This is typical of central Cambridge outside the core, touristy, medieval centre. One does see the Police: rushing in cars between outer Cambridge and Parkside Police Station. As Steve Ryder pointed out (CEN 2-Apr-1996), one sees far more traffic wardens.

This is hardly surprising: for 1998/9 the Cambridgeshire Police's single local policing priority was

For 1999/2000 they at last changed to a more relevant tack as their single local priority: In 2000/2001 they have no single local priority but instead claim different priorities in each District, covering burglary, vehicle crime and violent crime. After another round of poorly-organised consulation, they concluded that a higher precept on the Council Tax was acceptable to payers and duly charged around 20% more.

As of 2001, people are still deeply concerned at the lack of priority for community policing. For instance, I've not seen a policeman patrolling (as opposed to responding to a specific incident) since 1997.

Things must be bad when Coun. Evelyn Knowles, as a member of the Safer Cambridge Steering Group, said people have lost confidence in Police actions (CEN 12-Apr-1996). This comment followed Police advice to lone women to stay off the City's streets at night.

A survey by the City Centre management group and South Cambs District Council showed that only 24% of women feel safe in Cambridge at night, 27% of men+women. The survey had 7,000 responses.
(CEN 9-Jul-1996)

More policing in 1996...?

The Cambridgeshire Police announced a major increase in policing on 18th January 1996, due to an increase in Government funding. The next day the Cambridge Evening News announced "the biggest shake-up in policing in the City for more than 20 years". The City police commander Chief Superintendent Keith Hoddy said there will now be three policed areas, based on Electoral Wards: The aim was to have a distinct team of police for each area, allowing the teams to get to know their areas. The plan was for each team to have an Inspector, three to four Sergeants and about 35 Constables and was supposed to start some time before September.

He was quoted in the CEN 1-Feb-96:

As of October 1996, there was still no sign of policing but the Police were successful in ending a spate of aggressive begging. They also set up a new Family Unit at Parkside Police station, covering matters such as child abuse and domestic violence. There is supposed to be an increased Police presence around the City centre now that the CCTV system has come into operation.

Around 1995 they were thinking of moving the traffic section out of Parkside to the old Bottisham village police station and this seems to have happened.

Strategic Roles

Liberal Democrat County Councillor Geoffery Heathcock, as chairman of the Cambridge City Police Consultation Group, pointed out the police were increasingly diverting resources to strategic roles rather than traditional crime-fighting (CEN 7-Dec-1995). He was concerned about the chasm of experience opening up between senior officers and police in the front line: Coun. John Reynolds (Conservative, Girton), chairman of the Cambridgeshire Police Authority, said the Local Policing Plan that year did emphasise beat officers - 36 extra ones.

The Chief Constable, Ben Gunn (caught & fined on the spot by his own officers for speeding in 1996), said the Force's priorities in that Plan were to cut road accidents, raise public support for the Police and make sure policing was responsive to local needs (CEN 1-Apr-1996).

Phone response

Cambridgeshire Police had a lot of criticism in late 1995 for the slowness of response to calls - examples of 20 minutes being given and they deployed 13 extra operators as a result (CEN 25-Jan-1996). A new centralised call system at the Hinchingbrooke HQ had teething problems since startup in August, particularly for non-emergency calls such as crime reports. In Cambridge 6 officers were been put onto answering calls as a temporary measure (CEN 15-Feb).

The CEN on 29-Feb-1996 reported that it might be three to six months before call answering was satisfactory, partly as it takes three months to train an operator. 13 out of the 103 operators left when the new system was installed. The East Anglia Ambulance Trust had even worse self-inflicted problems.


The issues of more policemen on the beat, or more manning phone lines became entwined with the bid for a helicopter to the Home Office. Cambridgeshire and Essex Police forces wanted to operate one each and share backup facilities.

The Chief Constable claimed a helicopter would be equivalent to 20 officers, at an initial cost of 900,000 and a running cost of 418,000 plus manpower, as quoted in a letter from P.W. Blake pleading for beat officers as a priority. (CEN 29-Feb-1996) The cost has also been expressed as more than 500 per hour.

The Home Office gave the Cambridgeshire/Essex air support consortium the 900,000, which allowed them to have two helicopters, one based in each county (CEN 24-Apr).

The only compatible (so spares are shared) 2nd-hand Aerospatiale Squirrel helicopter they found was in Puerto Rico, so it took a lot of time to ship over in bits and reassemble. Another restriction in choice is that the Home Office insists on twin-engined models, apparently for safety over populated areas. It finally arrived in April 1997. It's mainly black, with registration G-CAMB, and has become a common feature hovering over the City. It does sometimes seem that they bring it out at the slightest excuse, which is hardly surprising. It proved extremely useful to the Police in just its first few months.

However it routinely provokes outrage from residents due to its noise, particularly near the Parkside police station as it often hovers in the area whilst awaiting instructions. For instance at the combined Animal Rights/Reclaim The Streets demo in 1998 it produced far more noise than the demo.


From April 1996 the Police have followed national policy and ceased responding to ringing burglar alarms unless there are clear signs of break-in (CEN 8-Mar-1996). This provoked the ill-informed but unsurprising reaction from the City Council's Environmental Health and Protection Committee about it being a "licence to burgle".

The point is that it is better (far more effective) for alarms to be silent - signalling directly the Police or a security firm. Anything which reduces the curse of ringing alarms should be welcomed, particularly by Environmental Health officers, who have to deal with noise pollution.

The Police responded to more than 7,000 ringing alarms in 1995, 40 of which were triggered by a crime. That represents an immense waste of Police manpower.

Sounding alarms are for deterring crime, not eliciting a Police response.

Crime & Disorder Act consultation in 1999

Under the terms of the Act Police Authorities and Councils had to consult local communities about crime reduction strategies. In Cambridge there was a feeble and poorly-advertised questionnaire. (See for instance the article and a letter in the Cambridge Cycling Campaign's Newsletter 23.) The City Council put the questionnaire on their Web site (a page to be printed out, filled in & posted back) but didn't promote it - making it a rather pointless exercise.

1999: So where are they?

As of 1999 it seems there are even less Police actually patrolling the City. Three examples from cam.misc (posted around September 1999): So it seems that the Parkside Police have more important things to do than respond when people are in trouble - paperwork possibly. Part of the problem is that emergency calls go to the Huntingdon HQ, who then seem to ask out-of-City squad cars to respond. So much for their 1999/2000 local priority.

The only real initiative being pursued is the City Council's CCTV: as expected it'll be extended to Mill Road in lieu of policing.

The excellent Channel 4 series Coppers in September 1999 pointed out how the Police came to lose touch with the public and increasingly retreat to Police stations and squad cars since the 1950s. The "Z car" in the early 1960s was the fatal step. Whenever junior members of the Police are interviewed, they say they regret the loss of contact and would love to be back on the beat. They're rightly credited with making the best they can of the situation of hopelessly inadequate funding and weak, out-of-touch management.

At the 1999 Labour Party Conference the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, promised 50M for 5,000 extra officers on the beat - a tiny improvement when spread across the country. However year-on-year "efficiency savings" (i.e. cuts) under the New Tory Government, plus one-off costs for a new radio system and policing the coming "Millennium" (with all Police leave cancelled), mean that Cambridgeshire will lose between 60 and 70 officers in 1999-2000. As 87% of the 75M budget is for staff, the 2% cuts always hit staffing. The latest Home Office statistics are that Cambs. Police have a detection rate of 28.6%, the lowest in the region (Suffolk manage 41%).
(CEN 1-Oct-1999)

To his great credit, Cllr. Geoffrey Heathcock resigned as Chairman of the Police Local Consulation Group in October 1999, citing the appalling lack of interest by senior officers in the Huntingdon HQ, in spite of their constant banging on about "partnership" and "listening". He knows the force spends too much time on producing pleasing statistics for the Home Office.
(CEN 6-Oct-1999)

In November the Police decided to move seven detectives from Parkside to the Histon and Sawston Police stations so as to be closer to the crimes they want to investigate. It's apparently part of getting to know the communities they serve and is supposed to release uniformed officers for "front-line" policing.
(CEN 20-Nov-1999)

This is presumably part of the ethos of "smarter policing" espoused by think-tanks and other political cronies, the theory being that we don't need more policemen on the beat but instead resources should be diverted to initiatives such as helicopters, office work and "targeted" policing (i.e. picking cost-effective areas of policing - where to get good statistics at minimal cost). In short, it's a convenient rationalisation for avoiding proper expenditure on real policing.

Anything involving technology tends to be welcomed under this mindset, hence experiments such as the modern version of the medieval hue & cry: Police use the likes of e-mail and Web sites to inform a neighbourhood immediately a crime is reported.


East Anglia Ambulance Trust

The East Anglia Ambulance Trust moved Cambridgeshire (& Suffolk) 999 ambulance call handling to Norwich, with the loss of 6 jobs (CEN 30-Apr-1996) - another example of the loss of local knowledge in call handling, though not as extreme as BT's centralisation of directory enquiries and British Rail's/successors' centralisation of travel enquiries.

In mid-1997 the Ambulance Trust announced a plan to issue remote homes in East Anglia with their grid references, to keep by the 'phone to speed up location and despatch. If they'd retained the local knowledge this wouldn't be so necessary. In 1999 there was a major shake-up of the service (for instance improving local management), following a highly critical independent inquiry.