The theme for today is policing in Barnet. I try not to criticise the police too much, because they have a tough job. Last year I had a chat with the chief of police and he agreed that Barnet was probably the safest and most pleasant Borough to be in charge of. That doesn't mean that it doesn't have its challenges and issues. In fact Barnet has challenges because it is probably the most economically diverse Borough in the country. The issues for policing the leafy mansions of Totteridge, where gated mansions and private security firms aim to deter burlgars are completely different to issues facing those living in Grahame Park. I was having a chat with a less esteemed member of the constabulary over a pint and he said a very interesting thing. If a millionaire in Totteridge gets burgled and his house gets ransacked, he expects the chief of police to personally conduct the investigation. If a single mum in Grahame park gets burgled and her house gets ransacked, often she's amazed if anyone actually shows up. Even more interesting was his view that criminality pervades every level of society, it's just that those at the bottom of the pile are not as proficient at it and get caught.
He made the point that the crack addict who robs his local off license has a high chance of getting caught sooner or later and will probably end up in prison. The company director engaging in corporate fraud will most likely never get caught. It isn't just such financial crimes where the expectation of justice is so different. When it comes to issues of spousal abuse and wider sexual crimes, this isn't just the domain of the poor in the borough. The difference is that women in the higher levels of society also feel "shamed" and so are less likely to report. The likely remedy is likely to be financial in the form of a divorce settlement or some cash to "shut up and go away".
Then there is the issue of drugs. Is substance abuse less or more common in the towers of Totteridge or the crack dens of Colindale? As a percentage of the population, it is probably pretty similar. Again, there is probably a disconnect between what justice one could expect if caught. A working class person caught with drugs, will probably just accept the punishment, whatever that may be. For the more well heeled members of society, a bevvy of lawyers and implausable excuses will be deployed. The more well heeled, the more it costs the police to persue even the most trivial of issue.
We have a bit of a schizophrenic attitude to the police. Half the time (when we get a speeding ticket) we moan that "they haven't got anything better to do, but if a speeding driver runs over our child we say "why don't they do something". I discussed the seeming obsession with traffic offenses with the police and they pointed out that you are far more likely to get injured or killed by a speeding driver than be murdered or maimed by a maniac.
We all feel safer when we see bobbies on the beat. They add a general feeling of security to us. Last night, as I played football at Powerleague in Pursley Road, we had a Police helicopter hovering nearby for about 10 minutes. I've no idea what they were up to, maybe monitoring traffic on the M1 or A1 after and incident? To me Coppers in choppers always make me feel a tad uneasy. When I watch Police, Camera, Action ! type documentaries and they show helicopters stalking villains with night vision, it reminds me that the big brother society is moving ever closer. Helicopters are expensive toys, which I've never been entirely convinced deliver value for money.
One of my friends who is a policeman (with old school attitudes to crime) tells me that the big problem is not the police at all. It is the fact that criminals are not locked up quickly enough, for long enough or regularly enough. He tells me that in Barnet, most burglaries are caused by no more than a dozen people. To lock each one up costs a fortune and then they are released, with the police knowing full well that there will be a spike in burglary cases, almost immediately. Of all the crimes, burglary is the one which people feel the justice system is most out of kilter on (with the exception of paedophiles). The police tell me they take the issue seriously and can, with justification, claim that it is not their fault if the courts don't lock people up for long enough.
Last year we had the sad spectacle of a murder in a brothel in Burnt Oak. For many Barnet residents, this seemed like a window to another world. I doubt that many of our local politicans have ever ventured out into Burnt Oak for a night out. The delights of a pint at the Bald Faced Stag on a Saturday night is a pleasure I cannot imagine Brian Coleman savouring. Sadly it is something I believe all of our politicians should do. Last year on the campaign trail in Mill Hill, I had a friendly chat with Tory Councillor John Hart. The subject of Burnt Oak and his colleagues came up. It may surprise you to hear me say it, but I think John is one of the very few Tories who recognise the value of Burnt Oak and its citizens. John told me he always buys his fruit and veg in Burnt Oak. He told me that the Tories should be courting the small traders who run the shops, the hard working Asian community and everyone else working to earn a crust. He told me that if Matthew Offord won in Hendon, it would be because he'd got out and about in Burnt Oak (at Johns suggestion apparently) and that the 2-300 votes he'd gained as a result of talking to people there may be the difference. As it turned out, Offord won by 106 votes. John was right and it "woz Burnt Oak which won it for Souperman".
It is interesting that in the midst of the riots last year, unlike many working class areas, Burnt Oak didn't see large scale rioting. I suspect that this is because there is a sense of community there. I believe that this is a lesson for the Metropolitan Police in all of this. It is easy to retreat to our bunkers when cash is tight. There is a tendency to return to the squad cars and the choppers to police the Borough. This would be a mistake. I believe that the opposite should be the policy. More engagement with the community and more efforts to get people to work with the police. As Matthew Offord won his seat in Burnt Oak, I'd like to see him start to champion the area and put himself at the forefront of efforts to build bridges between the community and the police. There is no easy solution to keeping Barnet safe. The most important thing is for the Police to ensure that ALL SECTIONS of society see the Police as part of the solution and not part of the problem. Last year I was talking to another friend who is a Met Police officer. We were discussing drug dealers. She said that she'd had to go and tell the mother of a 19 year old drug dealer that he'd been murdered. The mother was devastated, she felt it was her own fault for letting her son ever get involved in gangs and drugs. She said she wished she'd turned him in to the police, the first time she'd found him with drugs. Would you? Would I?
I hope to god it's a decision I never have to make and I never have to regret.