Community relations with the Met are ‘beginning to fracture’ amid fears neighbourhood police officers could ‘disappear altogether’ as cuts, a merger with Lambeth, the World Cup and even Donald Trump’s visit leave Southwark Police in disarray.
Across the borough, a cost-saving drive has seen the number of safer neighbourhood team officers cut, and independent police advisors say those still in post are struggling to cope with their bigger workloads, on top of being taken out of the borough at short notice and to respond to urgent challenges across London.
Although dedicated ward officers are kept solely focused on their wards, their safer neighbourhood team colleagues are not. Officially they can be pulled away to work on New Year’s Eve, Notting Hill Carnival and any ‘major incident’.
One of the independent police advisers who helped set up the scheme in Southwark in 2005, Stephen Bourne, told the News: “These officers continue to work hard in their communities, but sometimes they are faced with too many demands, especially with this year’s rise in gang crime and youth violence.
“In reality our Safer Neighbourhood officers are sometimes abstracted and this leaves them struggling to keep up with the work they are trying to make progress with in their wards,” going on to warn: “If communities do not speak out against the reduction in Safer Neighbourhood Teams, they will eventually vanish altogether.”
The first teams were formed of a Sergeant, three police constables and several Police Community Support Officers, or PCSOs.
In 2011, Southwark still had 22 safer neighbourhood team covering a ward each, with 42 constables and 72 PCSOs.
But now Sergeants are responsible for several wards and the number of dedicated ward officers (constables) has also been cut.
Data obtained by the Lib Dems in April showed Southwark lost 60 officers last year – one for every week. And in June, The Sunday Times published official police data cross referenced with Ministry of Justice figures to show the number of unsolved crimes across the UK, with just 8.95 per cent of crimes solved in our borough – compared with the national average of only 9.1 per cent.
As the News reported in the aftermath of the multiple stabbing by the Elmington Estate on August 16, Camberwell Green’s police team has now been ‘cut to the bone’ with just two dedicated ward officers, and one Police Community Support Officer (PCSO).
Shockingly, the team has even had one of these positions vacant since June 2018. Although a new recruit was due to join in September, the start date has been continually pushed back.
Across Southwark’s safer neighbourhood teams there are also concerns that the merger between Southwark and Lambeth police, currently underway, is also causing chaos and confusion and inhibiting officers’ ability to tackle other types of crime.
At a time when community policing matters more than ever, residents are disappointed that well-known and well-liked officers are being moved from community work to response teams after just months on the job.
At a Camberwell Community Council meeting on Wednesday, September 5, Sergeant Richard Price admitted that Safer Neighbourhood Police in his three wards of Camberwell Green, St Giles and Champion Hill had dealt with an ‘unprecedented’ series of incidents, including Donald Trump’s visit and World Cup England games – all on top of a series of horrific tit-for-tat gang stabbings in the area.
At the same meeting, he made the admission that “residents are somewhat reluctant to come forward to give us information about youths gathering and incidents taking place on the estate”, whilst reassuring attendees that any information given to Crimestoppers – if people do not want to go to police – is treated anonymously by the independent charity.
He confirmed officers would be renewing their efforts to tackle highly visible and intimidating street drinking, drug using and begging in Camberwell, an issue residents said had escalated while officers’ efforts were elsewhere.
Most advisors and residents the News has spoken with are full of praise for the officers in the area they know, and understand the difficult situation the Met is placed in when it has been ordered by the government to save £325 million in the next three years.
As Mr Bourne told the paper: “Southwark Police cannot be blamed for the cut backs, loss of police stations and the distractions caused by borough mergers, in my view a terrible idea which is already beginning to fracture police and community relations.
“However, the time has come for politicians, the Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, and the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, to recognise we have a voice which should be heard.
“They need to be reminded why communities were invited to work closely with the police in the first place.”
Southwark Metropolitan Police Service was unable to provide comment before going to press, despite being contacted last week.
However, a spokesperson did confirm that the number of dedicated ward officer numbers will not be cut, and they will continue working within their community and will not be taken out the borough.
However, it confirmed safer neighbourhood officers are being taken from Southwark to deal with incidents elsewhere – stopping them from doing their job.
As part of the merger and restructure, the force is hoping to reshuffle the safer neighbourhood teams to help soften the blow when officers are removed on a temporary basis.
The force also confirmed all officers’ positions are being reviewed but no final decisions have been made on staffing.