One of my core duties – as the public’s representative in policing - is to seek the views of residents of the Devon and Cornwall Police area while developing strategies and budgets.
Over the years our communities have been quite clear about their priorities. Since I was first elected to this role in 2016 the overwhelming message from you has been around officer numbers.
I have made the case to Government about the challenge of policing the largest police force areas in England and with the support of the public, who said they would be prepared to ‘pay more to get more’ embarked upon a Devon and Cornwall uplift well before central Government decided to follow suit.
The result of those combined increases is that officer numbers will hit what is almost certainly a record high number of officers this year. Home Office figures tell us that since 1946 police officer numbers in England and Wales stood at just 52,106, climbing steadily to 132,623 in 2010, before austerity measures took effect.
In Devon and Cornwall the budgeted figure for police officer numbers - the number my financial plan enables the force to recruit – always varies a little from the real number of boots on the ground.
On December 31, 1967, a few months after Devon and Cornwall Constabularies were amalgamated to form the current force, officer numbers stood at 2,143, 2,076 were male, and 67 female. In the years to 2009 they rose slowly but steadily until 2009 cuts in Government spending. In our force they started rising again from 2016/17, when we could afford 2,924 officers, 10 fewer than recorded by the Home Office for the force in 2001.
Since then your investment, funded both by local taxation (the police council tax precept) and from the national uplift fund handed to my office from the Home Office, has enabled the force to hire and train a lot more officers. The proposed budget I take to the Police and Crime Panel on January 28 will outline plans to hit a record budgeted force strength of 3,610 in 2022-23.
That recruitment means there are a lot of new faces in policing. Especially as the number recruited has to make up for the numbers leaving or retiring. The beauty of recruitment these days is that more people are attracted to the job at different stages in life and we have certainly improved on applicants’ gender equality.
There is a passing out ceremony for family and friends this Friday (Jan 21) and I expect to see several generations present, with the older ones bringing with them a wealth of experience.
Extensive and professional police training means there is a delay before these increases in officer numbers are felt by the public, and it is that what I and the force are focussed on now.
We know through annual surveying that the public want to see their investment in policing in the places they live, where they feel there is an absence of officers (particularly in rural areas), on the roads where they see dangerous and inconsiderate driving, and in preventing crime from happening in the first place.
Policing nationally has had a tough time of it in recent years - with some terrible examples of appalling behaviour by a minority of officers. I know though that the vast majority of our officers and staff are in it for the right reasons, they are dedicated and passionate about serving the people who pay their wages, it’s why they joined up.
I also know that when members of the public meet officers, their estimation of the force improves.
So to me it is vital that as we hit record numbers of officers in England and Wales we work doubly hard to ensure that public engagement is high on the agenda, bringing with the reassurance and accountability that perhaps people feel has been lacking in recent years.
The police station has been a bastion of safety and security in this country for decades, and I understand people want to have greater public access to these buildings and opportunities to meet their neighbourhood teams.
We also must get better at sharing the success stories of the force - the drug dealers put behind bars and the vulnerable individuals protected through diligent and conscientious police work.
Last week I had the pleasure of announcing that Exmouth Police Station, once doomed to closure, will be redeveloped by my team to provide a modern facility for the force and public. Over the coming months I will be supporting similar projects so record levels of investment in law and order start having a positive effect in communities around the peninsula.