I arrived at 9:35 am, parked in the Sidmouth Police station car park, and within a few minutes a police mini-van pulled up with Chris and PC Dave Wallace, the Neighbourhood Beat Manager (NBM), inside. Both men were on good form, and the friendly banter between them continued after introductions had been made and tea and coffee organised.
We made our way up stairs where I was briefly introduced to Sergeant Andy Squires, the Neighbourhood Team Leader (NTL) for Seaton and Sidmouth.
While we waited for Andy to finish his emails, Chris showed me round the Station. What appeared from the outside to be a big building, seemed a little less capacious from inside. The rooms were small but well laid out, including the ground floor two-roomed gym, which I was assured all officers used. Dave used the gym almost daily, particularly for the two weeks before his yearly physical, Chris said with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
The old police enquiry office is now the home of the local Civil Enforcement Officers (Traffic Wardens to me and anyone else over thirty). The room next to this was used for the ‘Have your say’ meetings, and is home to small piles of community information literature that the Force and its partners have produced, along with the ‘Have Your Say’ blue book. Chris showed me the book, and the empty dated pages. The empty pages testified that although Local councilors often turned up, members of the public did not. And so it was that they, like many local policing teams, decided to hold the meetings where members of the public were guaranteed to be present, in the town library and in the library van that visits the smaller villages within their catchment area. The blank pages became a list of issues. Chris described how one lady he was talking to became very agitated while talking about the dog mess in her area, and was quite adamant that the police should do something about it. Then she calmed down a little and smiling, said that if that was all she had to complain about that really she was quite lucky!
Chris then showed me a map of the area that he and his team were tasked to cover and briefly outlined the day’s itinerary: we would all drive to Seaton, I was to go with Andy who wanted to chat to me about the area and Chris and Dave were in the other car. At Seaton we were to meet the Seaton team, drop into a Community speed watch training session, and then go out to do some actual speed checking (hence the requirement for two vehicles).
While we waited Chris talked about another issue in the area, namely car park theft. The Seaton and Sidmouth area has many car parks, some of which are in quite secluded locations, and it wasn’t always local thieves that raided them. He went on to relate that they knew of a least one group that came down to the area from up country, a large extended family from Wiltshire which visited around once a month and either wandered around the cars checking for items left in plain view, or watched where visitors put their valuables before going out on their walks. One visiting lady had placed her handbag in the boot, and the watching thieves had smashed the back window and snatched the bag. Unfortunately she not only had her house keys in the bag along with her address, but also her credit and debit cards in her wallet along with her pin numbers. In a joint effort the policing teams of Wiltshire and Devon had gathered enough evidence to ensure that three of the family members would spend some time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure! Subsequent to these successes the number of car park thefts declined, and whilst they did not however stop completely, now anyone hanging around a car park may find themselves the subject of attention from a passing local officer.
With the impending arrival of Inspector Simon Weare, it was time to get down to Seaton and we piled into the cars.
At the station 10 or so volunteer members of the public were waiting for their photo to be taken for Community Watch ID badges. One of the volunteers explained to Seaton PC Stephen Speariett his reason for getting involved: He walks his dog along a narrow path next to a busy road and is often quite unnerved by the speeding vehicles that he feels whistling by him. He had complained to the police, and when he heard about the Community Speed Watch he decided to get directly involved. His attitude was simple; ‘Put up or shut up’. ‘Help or don’t complain’; and so he had volunteered.
I was then introduced to Elaine Heartly who does the training and issues the speed guns, the ‘Community Speed Watch area’ warning signs and the high visibility coats.
Chris explained that once the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks and training had been carried out, the volunteers would be able to go out and do speed checks within their neighbourhood. Naturally they cannot give tickets, but all speeding vehicles are logged and entered onto a database which produces warning letters that are posted to those caught driving too fast. If caught again by the Community Speed Watchers, a PCSO delivers the letter by hand, and if caught for a third time their details are entered onto the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system. If one of these cameras then picks them up for speeding the consequences could be a fine, penalty points or a referral to a rectification-driving course.
The small training room was full, the table loaded with the requisite hot drinks, donuts and biscuits and in the corner the camera they would be using was leaning against the wall on its tripod. Around the table the volunteers sat in expectant conversation. Sat at the head of the table Elaine was waiting patiently for all to join her after they have had their photograph taken by Stephen who would also be joining them to help answer any questions.
The inspector then arrived with PC Simon Aldred, the new NBM for Axminster. After introducing himself and Simon, he moved to one side to talk to his officers and I talked with Simon about web training, placing content on the intranet, ‘Caught on camera’ and Facebook.
It was time to set off again, with Chris and I in the Police car, and Dave and Andy in the Police mini van. It was decided that Chris and I would use the speed gun (which had been calibrated earlier that morning) and Dave and Andy would stop any cars we radioed through. I was to keep track of the speeds of the cars that Chris captured. We parked up and got into position, checked the radio, tested the gun again on a passing rowing boat, and hailed the rowers with a speed reading, a wave and a smile. I took some pictures and held the clipboard and pencil. The spot was a very pretty one and I was somewhat distracted, wanting to take pictures of the picturesque scene of river, tram and rowing boat.
‘35’ Chris called, and all thoughts of photographic composition were rapidly abandoned as, knocking the camera which was hanging round my neck out of the way, I checked the ‘35’ box.
With the next call, ‘46’ Chris was on the radio to Dave,
‘Dave the silver car registration number whiskey… was doing 46.’
The road, as the sign placed but a few feet away clearly stated, had a 40-mile per hour limit. We had our first customer. In total, Chris radioed through 5 speeding cars, and also registered 2 cars where the occupants weren’t wearing seat belts. At least no one was pulled over for using a mobile phone.
Chris explained that the results of the speed check would later go on his team local policing website, which was updated once a week, a process which he reckoned took him about half an hour. One of the community’s clearest priorities had been identified as speed, and so he had promised to go out whenever he could and do some checks on various problem roads on his patch. Usually done on his own, occasionally Dave joins him and ‘Officer Seen Conditional Offer’ (OSCO) tickets (replacement for the fixed penalty tickets) are issued, enforcing this community’s priority.
It is of course the case that the officer takes no part in the decision of whether a fine, penalty points or a rectification course is the result of the ticket being issued. The officer simply writes up a ticket and the driver is talked through the process and advised of what could happen and that a letter will be sent through the post. The officer also reinforces the speed limit message explaining the dangers of speeding and advises the driver to slow down in future. When back in the office the ticket will be processed and another department will review the report to make the decision as to which penalty letter will be sent out.
Back with Dave and Chris, after another 15 minutes or so we headed back to Sidmouth and lunch. On the way back Chris pulled into several car parks and had a quick look round; all was as it should be.
As we continued our journey back to the station Chris also pointed out several Caravan parks that he intended to visit in order to talk to the owners about security and theft prevention for the caravans, as well as the visitors belongings. He said that the visitors liked seeing officers on site and that he and his colleagues introduced themselves and handed out crime prevention leaflets and stickers to the children.
Back at the station we headed for the kitchen and I was treated to some friendly banter between Chris, Dave and Andy, especially when I took the chocolate biscuits from my bag for all to share. We listened to the news while we ate and Andy explained that it was very difficult to get half an hour of peace and quiet to eat his lunch. As if to prove his point, his work phone rang.
Andy told me a little about his policing career. In 2000 - 2006 he was a NBM in Exmouth. He won an award for his ‘old fashioned approach to policing’, which was presented to him by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary at the time. He then became a response officer and earned a promotion to Sergeant and then went back to neighbourhood policing as an NTL for Seaton and Sidmouth. He believes very strongly in building a community which, in partnership with police, can work to reduce crime and keep those who are vulnerable safe.
In Exmouth as a PC he had built very good relationships with the shopkeepers and taxi drivers, and through a sharing of community lead intelligence he was well informed of what was going on. The shopkeepers and drivers in turn were given the latest crime prevention material, a heads-up to be on their guard against business-related criminal activity and, of course, the reassurance that Andy would pop in again soon. From what I witnessed his Seaton and Sidmouth team are made from the same stuff as Andy and are very community-focused.
When he can, Andy goes to the local town council meetings which he finds is an excellent way of keeping himself and his team informed of local developments and of picking up on potential problems early. The councillors appreciate his time and interest and he in turn finds that they are more amenable to suggested solutions to issues arising. They can also occasionally help financially as when, at a town council meeting when the issue of speeding was raised again, Andy had explained that they had to share a hand-held speed camera with Ottery St Mary. The councilors, a little taken aback at this revelation, set to and agreed funding and the Seaton Sidmouth teams had their own camera.
While I had been chatting with Andy, Chris had been updating his local policing team website and when Andy moved back to his office and his emails Chris asked my advice on a formatting issue he had with the site.
Formatting fun over, we then take to the road again, with an unusual to-do list for a web designer-
- Check for a certain vehicle on a housing estate,
- Check a possible abandoned van,
- Visit a school to keep the car parking peace,
- And finally check on a privately owned airstrip.
As we headed for the housing estate Chris and I talked about the importance of getting to know the community, so that a trust can grow and information be exchanged, especially important of course when door-to-door investigation is required. Arriving at the estate, a car was noted and the number plate called in, but it didn’t belong to the person that Chris was looking for. Ever-alert, Chris then noticed a car with three young people in it whom he did not recognize as living locally; he also noticed that the young person in the back was not wearing a seat belt. Managing to get the drivers attention before they pulled away he introduced himself as the local PCSO. The young man responded in a friendly manner giving his name and when Chris said that he hadn’t seen him around the estate before, the man told Chris that he had only recently moved in. Chris explained that he often patrolled the estate and that if there are any issues to please let him know. With a firm but friendly reminder that they all wear their seat belts, the belted occupants drove away.
We then moved on to our next call, the van, allegedly abandoned for 3 months. Chris suspected that it hadn’t actually been abandoned, but just parked in the car park, but because it had a flat tyre he was concerned that if it wasn’t moved soon it would soon be targeted and parts stripped off it. We pulled into the car park and Chris went to speak to some walkers gathered around their car changing back into day shoes after a walk, and asked if any of them had reported the van or had noticed anything suspicious. Having had no luck, a cheery bye-bye and we headed off on foot towards the school, stopping on the way so that Chris could talk to a local shopkeeper and enquire about a mutual ‘friend’ who, yes, had been notable by his absence.
At the school, Chris went in to talk to the secretary and a teacher about an email. The teacher then told him about a parent wanting to arrange a meeting to discuss the possibility of a new road crossing outside the school. Chris said he would be happy to be involved. We moved outside the small lively school and Chris greeted the parents and children with another cheery hello. In conversation with another parent Chris did not hear the young boy chant ‘I’m the FART man’ or his mother respond with ‘be quiet now or the policeman will tell you off.’ I later bring this up and ask if he is often asked to discipline people’s children. Chris confirmed that yes, this did happen but he would always discourage parents from doing so. He explained that if children grew up fearing the police that they would be less likely to call on them for help or be inclined to share information of a potentially more serious nature when older.
We headed back to the car park and on the way called at a house and enquired of the person who answered the door if he was owner of the van. The gentleman who answered said that the van was his father’s and that it would be moved within the next day or so. At the car park Chris spoke to two elderly ladies who confirmed that it was they who had called it in to the police. They said that they were worried someone was living in the van as they could see tea-making facilities. Chris reassured them that he had spoken to the owners and that it would be moved soon. As we walked around the van we noticed that it had a removal notice on it from the council. The 24hr car park is free for all but is not meant to function as permanent car/van storage.
As we got back in the car the conversation moved on to the varied roles a PSCO fulfills, and the difficulty of remembering everyone’s name. Chris then spoke with a passion about how the police are often the only ones left standing because they are a 24hr service and that they have needed to become very knowledgeable about other services available to their communities. He went onto to relate how one evening he was called to investigate an open external door to an old lady’s house, reported by a concerned neighbour. He had entered calling out the name of the lady and that he was the police. He had found the lady in a state of considerable distress in the lounge. He had phoned her son who said that he couldn’t get out to his mother until the following day. It had then fallen to Chris, as the ‘last man’, to reassure the old lady, clean up the distressing mess and make sure she was comfortable and relatively happy before he left. She was living on her own and so the following day he had rung the appropriate agencies to make sure they were aware of her vulnerabilities. He also rang the son to update him and ascertain whether he had visited his Mother as yet. This PCSO’s duties seemed to be widely drawn.
We then visited the airstrip to check that all was as it should be and to speak to the owner to enquire if they have seen anything suspicious. Next stop was the residence of an elderly gentleman, again living on his own. Chris, who had suggested that the man apply for an emergency panic button, the type that he could wear around his neck and activate if he fell, was proudly shown the button by the elderly gentleman. He explained to me that if he pushes the button the care service rings the house and if he can’t get to the phone an ambulance is sent round to check on him. Happy for the attention, he informed us that later he was going to walk up the garden with his phone and check the buttons range.
On the way back to the station Chris, still concerned for the elderly man, considered suggesting to him that he replace his two walking sticks with a walking frame. We headed back to the station along a different route taking in a few of the smaller hamlets on his patch.
Five O’clock, and we are back at the station. We say our goodbyes and I thank Chris and his team for a fascinating day.
I have always been a fan of the Local Policing teams and the PSCO’s and I now have an even greater admiration for them than I did previously. As I said to the last member of the public that we met, I felt privileged to be given the opportunity to spend a day with the team, and although afterwards I thought I may have sounded a bit pompous, as I write this and remember the busy day we had and the various ways we had made a difference to the people we had encountered, that’s exactly how I feel.
As for the team’s priorities, I would say that the main one was to keep everyone safe and reassured by being proactive members of the community. They speed check with high visibility jackets on as a reminder to drivers of speeding vehicles to slow down, to wear their seatbelts and not to use mobile phones. They patrol the car parks, streets and country lanes and will stop and chat always keen to add your concerns to their list, which in turn extends and refines the community intelligence jigsaw. They help set up and attend meetings, make calls and try to link those in need to those who can answer that need, all the while with an eye to the community’s priorities and issues on the ‘Have Your Say’ list.
They advise, they support, they protect. They are your local policing team.
And they’re there for you.