Are the police playing politics or are we in real trouble? Jonathan Schofield asks some pressing questions
A MAN chases a thieving youth past St Ann’s Church shouting, “If I catch you I’ll leather you, that’s mine,” a security guard follows, overweight and panting. A beggar walks into a store in Didsbury, takes food and walks out without paying because he knows the police won’t respond. A man does the sameat a garage on Bury New Road, but the garage owner and yours truly make him give the products back. The garage owner thanks me and weeps.
A restaurateur in the city calls the police and says beggars are openly taking drugs outside his restaurant, right here, right now, and the police say there’s nobody available and it’s not a priority. A house is burgled, the police ask if the robbers are still in the house and when told no, they say there’s nobody available. A man on a tram shouts at an inspector, “I’m not fucking paying. I’ve got mental health problems. Why should I pay? I’m on medication.” As if that is an excuse.
Police chiefs are sending out a very clear message... it’s almost as if they have given up
As a tour guide in the city, I pick up a group from a central hotel on a Sunday morning and decide to take my Norwegian guests down Dalton Passage, off John Dalton Street. Unfortunately there's a beggar in the alley defecating. I choose a different route. During that two hour walking tour there is no police presence in evidence anywhere in the city centre.
This isn’t just happening in Manchester, of course. It’s a national curse.
On a late Saturday night train out of Newcastle recently there were private security guards in the first class compartment. I hadn’t paid for first class, nobody had, but because it was standing room only elsewhere, I chanced my arm and, with a lot of other polite looking people, was let in. The guards let it be known that they were not there to stop incidents elsewhere on the train, just to stop anything happening in the first class compartment (for which, remember, nobody had paid). “It gets mad out there,” said one guard pointing down the rest of the train, “too dangerous for me.”
The Conservative Party claims to be the party of law and order. Clearly they are not doing their job at present. There is a general feeling that lawlessness and disorder are creeping in. Certainly under the Conservatives the thin blue line has become as taut as a hamstring about to snap. Ignorant austerity measures, which blindly attempt to reduce public spending and the national deficit, have hit forces such as Greater Manchester Police (GMP) hard.
Former Chief Constable Mike Todd thought in the noughties that GMP needed 10,000 officers. It peaked at 8,000. Now it is down to a little over 6,000, while the population is up around 300,000 to 2.8 million. Further austerity measures have hit other services, throwing people onto the street and making benefit provision harder to get. It’s becoming a perfect storm.
The fact is that we can’t attend all the requests for assistance
Sean Anstee, a Conservative councillor in Trafford and the former Leader of the borough, thinks his party are still the party of law and order.
“Crime is more complex. Funding has been protected for complex crimes such as counter terrorism and online, but there had to be cuts generally in the country given the deficit," he says.
"I recognise there is a frustration with what appears to be rising crime and the seeming lack of a neighbourhood presence. GMP and the government need to be smarter about that, and smarter with the resources we have.
"Of course, as the party of government it’s for us to sort things out. Overall, crime is down since 2012, yet I feel the frustration on the street. Yes, the Conservatives are still the party of law and order.”
The way Anstee says that seems to lack conviction, if you forgive the pun. For one thing, overall crime in Manchester is on the up - violent crime in particular. According to UKCrimeStats.com, in July 2016 there were 5,283 violent crimes across Greater Manchester. In July 2018, there were 10,410 - an increase of 97%.
To the outside, the Conservatives, riven by in-fighting over the dreaded B-word are simply trying to hold things together. Their collective eye is quite clearly off the ball.
Meanwhile, police chiefs have exacerbated the problem and encouraged wrong doing by stating that they can no longer adequately police their respective patches. This is a terrible message to convey to their officers at the sharp point.
As Manchester MP Graham Stringer says: “Police chiefs are sending out a very clear message they are not going to bother pursuing crime in the way they should; it’s almost as if they have given up. Yes, the government has unfairly targeted the police but the latter are making some very bad choices, such as closing down rape units.”
Stringer doesn’t agree about police numbers either. He says: “As far as I can make out there are a similar number of officers as twenty or so years ago, when the police were doing a better job. I got a call the other day about fourteen or fifteen youths marauding down Moston Lane in my constituency (Blackley and Broughton). The police said they didn’t have the resources to deal with it. That’s shameful. If there is crime being committed they should attend to it. It seems that some police chiefs are playing politics and attempting to put pressure on the government rather than doing their job.”
Would you want to bring your family somewhere where there’s an army of drug addicts shouting, swearing, foaming at the mouth and rolling around on the street?
What is clear is that the level of crime being ‘screened out’ from investigation is deeply alarming. According to an article in the MEN last week by Jen Williams, 'Almost half the crimes reported to Greater Manchester Police are not being investigated, including most theft, shoplifting, burglary, criminal damage, arson and public order offences. 17,000 violent crimes were not followed up by officers last year'.
We asked some direct questions of GMP about their tactics, especially with regard to the city centre. We asked whether there was a policy to screen out crimes (in other words tolerate them), we asked about the lack of a presence on the streets and about specific instances of wrong-doing. You can read their answers in full below.
The same replies, of being stretched and not being able to cover the ground they used to be able to cover, were repeated time and again. Although GMP denied tolerating crime, despite evidence to the contrary.
One very sound reply showed the entirely reasonable frustration GMP felt with people giving beggars money. It's unbelievable to think that people who do this are still unaware that they're subsidising crime, especially when they can show their concern in so many other ways and through various agencies.
What does the office of Mayor Andy Burnham have to say about the situation? When Burnham was voted into office in May 2017 he also took over the role of police and crime commissioner, with priorities including ‘tackling crime and anti-social behaviour’ and ‘protecting vulnerable people’.
Initially, Burnham's office were reluctant to comment on what they saw as a police matter. However, when pressed, they referred, again, to slashed budgets, central government and lost police officers.
"Yes crime has gone up, something we've not shied away from acknowledging," said the spokesperson. "This year, for the first time since 2010, additional police officers are being recruited."
Now every day it seems people come and steal from me and when I ring the police I get nothing
Overall, given the answers Confidential received, nothing in the short-term seems likely to dissipate the feeling that lawlessness is growing. What is bizarre is the lack of any real evidence to show that the most basic principle of visible policing is being applied. This lack of visibility is denied by GMP, who said: ‘Over the last few months we have increased visibility in key areas as a result of feedback received from the community’.
Increased visibility... where?
GMP also talks about being intelligence-led, in which case shouldn't they have known where the ‘key areas’ were? The most unsettling line of all the communications between Confidential and GMP is this: ‘We can’t attend all the requests for assistance that come in.’ Surely this reinforces the view that crimes are being ignored.
Current anger about the situation is palpable through conversations with city centre businesses. Chinatown is particularly incensed. Bonnie Yeung of the Chinatown Community Forum said to Confidential earlier this year:
"We have meeting after meeting after meeting, yet the situation becomes more unsustainable and unmanageable. Local businesses are affected because people simply don’t want to come in to the area. After all, would you want to bring your family somewhere where there’s an army of drug addicts, shouting, swearing, foaming at the mouth and rolling around on the street? The area becomes more and more run down, there’s litter, and these circumstances become self perpetuating, and worsen."
She acknowledged, as every sensible person does, that the work of individual officers is of the highest calibre. She said: "When police officers are able to, they respond quickly and deal with problems efficiently." That goes for the officers I have seen in operation. They deserve the utmost respect. The problem seems to lie with their organisation, as Stringer points out.
We might start to see vigilantism
Back to that visible presence. Surely just ten officers in the city centre at all times - with two strolling around Piccadilly Gardens and the others trooping around the city centre on unpredictable paths, including some of the seedier alleyways - would act as a massive deterrent? Is this really logistically impossible with 6,000 officers?
Go to Greece, Italy, Spain and other southern European countries which are supposedly in a worse economic state than the UK and there is a police presence in every major square in every city. This is not to say we want to follow the methods of other police forces, especially armed ones, but how come they can manage that presence in ways we can’t?
I was talking to a businessman in a city centre pub the other day. He was from the Heatons and told me how young kids were being targeted by youths in a particular park, so the parents had organised themselves to watch over their offspring.
He said: “I can’t help feeling that should this feeling of no-protection from the police continue, in certain areas of the country we might start to see vigilantism.” This might be an exaggeration at present, although it might not take too much more pressure on communities before something gives.
Crimes are never victimless. The garage-owner (or franchisee) that I mentioned in the opening paragraphs said to me with tears running down his face, “This is my living. I worked hard for this, so that I could provide for my family. Now every day it seems people come and steal from me and when I ring the police I get nothing. I came to this country to work, thinking it would be peaceful and law-abiding. I don’t understand how this can be happening here.”
When walking the streets in any UK town or city it often seems only the glue of long-established civic tradition is holding society together. We know the effort individual police officers put in, but whether through systems or logistical errors (or through central government’s preoccupation with another issue) the policing situation seems to be getting worse not better, and thus criminals are becoming more brazen and daring. The time for a rethink in strategy is way overdue.
Questions put to the GMP:
Why are there so few visible police officers in the city centre?
GMP: "We have a dedicated team of neighbourhood officers and PCSOs in the city centre, working in close partnership with other agencies to keep people safe. Our staff provide a visible presence to reassure the community but we also conduct covert operations when required.
"Over the last few months we have increased visibility in key areas as a result of feedback received from the community, something which has been welcomed but we are committed to building on this to ensure we are working as efficiently as possible.
"The maintenance of public safety involves more than just the police and is not limited to crime. Greater Manchester Police are a key partner working alongside other partners and stakeholders as part of Manchester’s Community Safety Partnership.
"The Community Safety Partnership Strategy that sits alongside the deputy Mayors Police and Crime plan ‘standing together’ work together to: keep people safe - for those who live, work, socialise and travel in Greater Manchester, as well as protecting those who are vulnerable; To reduce harm and offending – preventing anti-social and criminal behaviour by intervening earlier and rehabilitating offenders; To strengthen communities and places – by helping to build resilient communities and strengthening the delivery of public assets."
How many officers are covering the city centre at 5am, midday, 6pm and midnight on a Friday?
GMP: "We would never comment on police numbers."
Why isn't open drug-dealing and drug-taking in the streets leading to arrests and prosecution? Is open drug-dealing and drug-taking from beggars tolerated by GMP?
GMP: "We take drug dealing and taking of any nature extremely seriously. For example, we’ve arrested 55 people for dealing spice alone in the city centre since January 2017. We also arrested 90 people for possession of spice and referred most of them to support services.
"We employ an integrated approach to ensure that those that need support or accommodation are offered the help that they need with regard to substance misuse and accommodation for example and can be supported to access places like the Booth Centre that offer a range of services for homeless people to rebuild their lives.
"Where people are causing anti-social behaviour, the offer of support is still there, but we will also challenge open drug use anti-social behaviour along with associated litter, aggressive begging, verbal abuse, harassment, threats of violence, actual violence, hate crimes/incidents and drug dealing working with the police to use both criminal and civil powers to stop these activities. This may take the form of a warning, but in more serious cases will result in arrest or injunction.
"Where there are persistent hotspots we undertake partnership operations with MCC and officers from the substance misuse services. We will speak to those on the street, offer support around substance misuse and also challenge anti-social behaviour. We use a vehicle to provide a presence and the ability to offer confidential support and advice."
CCTV and intelligence will reveal that just about every morning, around 8am, in the small pavilion in Chinatown open drug criminality is taking place. Why is this not being tackled?
GMP: "While we can’t provide specific details, GMP run covert and overt police operations to address access to drugs in the city. Operation Mandera specifically targets drug dealing in the city centre and has seen a number of those dealing drugs in the city arrested and jailed.
"One of our big challenges in Manchester is how we address the issue of people giving money and food directly to those begging in the city. Whilst this is clearly well-intentioned, it does support people to remain on the street rather than helping them to get off the street. Campaigns such as The Big Change seek to direct people's generosity to places that will be able to help individuals to get the support they need to address health needs such as substance misuse and access accommodation which will enable them to rebuild their lives. If anyone has experienced ASB they can report to ASB Services 0161 234 4612 or to the police on 101.
Two prominent restaurateurs in the city centre have told us that when they have reported open drug-dealing outside their premises they were told by the police that there was no one available to attend and that it was not a priority. Is this true, that a serious crime taking place in open view is now deemed lesser than other police work?
GMP: "All crime is a priority for GMP. Where there are persistent drug-dealing hotspots we undertake partnership operations with MCC and officers from the substance misuse services and we will speak to those on the street, offer support around substance misuse and also challenge anti-social behaviour. In addition to staff providing a visible presence to reassure the business community, undercover operations are in place and planned over the next twelve months."
Some of the smaller convenience stores across the city centre have told me that criminals are walking in, taking armfuls of products and then walking out because the police will now not attend such crimes. What is GMP's response to these claims?
GMP: "The Chief Constable has been really open about the current demand on policing and the fact that we can’t attend all the requests for assistance that come in to us. Decisions are made based on where the biggest risks and threats are and who is the most vulnerable. Policing has changed but people’s expectations are still in line with the resourcing that we used to have and we need to manage this appropriately.
"We are working closely with a range of partners to address the continuing challenges created by those who are begging, have alternative income streams or are taking money off innocent members of the public to ensure that they are brought to task and banned from the city."