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We have to turn fear about safety into action against violence

As the sun was setting across Exeter’s Cathedral Yard, and people were strolling through one of the most scenic parts of the city, there was the sound of smashing glass, then shouting as a fight broke out.

We have to turn fear about safety into action against violence

Meeting traders and the neighbourhood policing team in Exeter

Sergeant Carlo Towl, part of the neighbourhood policing team, broke off from the tour of the city we had been on to attend the incident. Fortunately a number of police officers and private security guards were already there and the incident was swiftly dealt with.

This was not 11pm on a Saturday night but 6pm on a Thursday. The shopkeepers, restauranteurs and security staff we spoke to said acts of violence like this happened all too frequently. So frequently that many do not get reported to police.

The tour, with Exeter City Council leaders, was in response to complaints about anti-social behaviour that blights too many parts of Devon and Cornwall. Our force area might boast some of the lowest recorded crime rates in the country but correspondence to my office suggests that all too often people do not feel safe.

There’s a huge gulf in the levels of violence we saw on Thursday night and the horrific kidnap rape and murder of Sarah Everard in London and murder of Lorraine Cox here in the Westcountry.

Nonetheless both impact on the way we feel and behave. The fear of violence, and of the sights and sounds that we or our families might experience if we visit certain parts of our communities, impacts on our behaviour and our mental wellbeing.

It is vital that, as we emerge from the Covid pandemic, people feel confident to visit our towns and cities and that their experiences are consistently good. The fabulous and creative businesses that we all rely on need our support and cities like Exeter are hubs of employment and culture that must be nurtured.

Having a police presence to prevent crime from occurring, and to respond when it does, is clearly part of the solution. I’m pleased that with the support of our communities paying more through their council tax we have been able to embark on the most significant recruitment drive in decades. We budgeted for 150 more sworn officers in our force this year than we were able to in 2019 and are still recruiting. It was good to hear that the Exeter neighbourhood team will soon have five more officers joining their ranks.

I know that the appalling actions of a rogue Met Police officer have damaged the reputation of policing in this country but can assure you that no one abhors his actions more than the men and women who don uniforms to protect and to serve the public.

The officers I meet every day are conscientious, hard working and put the safety of the public above their own.

But our police are only part of the solution.

It is vital that we tackle violence in all its forms, and restore people’s confidence in our public spaces, by taking a long-term approach that focuses the efforts of our partners on this pernicious problem.

That is why last year the Chief Constable and I decided to set up the Serious Violence Prevention Programme, which aims to engage wider society in tackling the factors that lead to violent crime and intervening before any damage is done.

This approach may, for example, build on the work funded by my office to ensure that prisoners are less likely to become homeless on completion of their sentences. Research by the charity Crisis shows that homeless people are a staggering 17 time more likely to be victims of violent crime.

It will also focus on those on the edge of violence, those exposed to it in the home and work to reduce violent crime in public spaces.

None of us should fear being assaulted, wherever we are, whatever sex we are and at whatever time we choose to venture out. The current attention this issue is receiving by our national press, policymakers and Government must be used to energise a collective effort to make our public spaces safer.