Support for officers a priority
John Smith, independent candidate for Avon and Somerset police and crime commissioner, stresses the importance of ‘fairly paying’ and ‘fairly protecting’ police officers.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted more than ever the importance of the work our police, other emergency services, NHS and key workers do in often difficult circumstances to protect us all, and they in turn deserve protection and support while they do this challenging work.
In my time as deputy police and crime commissioner (PCC) I met a lot of officers who told me about the stress of the past 12 months, particularly the risk of taking the virus home to their families.
However, there has sadly been a significant increase in assaults on police officers and staff throughout the pandemic – in the past 12 months there have been more than 1,800 assaults on members of Avon and Somerset Constabulary. Every weekend, police officers are punched, kicked, scratched, and spat and coughed at while doing their job. In a recent case, District Judge Lynne Mathews said there was an “epidemic of assault on police at the moment” as she sent a man to prison for spitting on a police officer who was worried about catching Covid-19. There has also been an increase in hate crimes against officers with them frequently suffering racist or homophobic abuse.
The recent violent disorder in Bristol attached to protests against the new Policing Bill resulted in more assaults on police officers – more than 40 on March 21 alone – and very stressful situations for the police to manage.
These incidents are unacceptable. I made three actions a priority during my time as deputy PCC and, if elected, I would continue these:
- Supporting initiatives led by the chief constable to introduce a ‘Seven Point Promise’ to enhance the support for all staff and officers affected by assault and to ensure that courts must consider every police assault and view body-worn video (BWV) evidence;
- Working with the chief constable to ensure that officers have the right equipment and training to protect themselves – the issue of BWV cameras to all frontline officers and staff has been a game-changer to support officers and for accountability – as well as training and support to help prevent assaults happening in the first place, for example through de-escalation training for new joiners; and
- Supporting plans to increase the robustness of sentencing guidelines for assaults on police.
Government also needs to do more to support the police. While I understand the current pressures on the public finances I do not support the decision by the Chancellor to freeze police officer and staff pay for next year. This effectively amounts to a pay cut after inflation is taken into account. Given the incredible public service they have provided during the pandemic this seems very unfair and short-sighted. If elected I would lobby for police officers and staff to receive at least an inflation level increase in pay each year.
Similarly, I was disappointed that the Government did not agree to prioritise the vaccination of frontline police officers and staff as part of the second wave of vaccinations. It was right that the elderly and most vulnerable groups were given the jab first, but I do not understand why frontline police were not then prioritised. To put this in context there are approximately 130,000 police officers nationally – the vaccination programme has administered more than 800,000 jabs in a single day. For me, these issues are about respect for the work the police have done in the last year as much as anything else.
Given the reduction in police funding and officer numbers since 2010 as a result of austerity and central Government budget cuts, officers remain under pressure across Avon and Somerset. Officer numbers reduced from approximately 3,400 in 2010 to just over 2,500 in 2018. Even with the additional funding for new officers that has been promised by the Government, it will take many years to recruit and train these officers to fill the gaps. In Avon and Somerset, these budget cuts were exacerbated by the local police and crime panel’s decision to veto the council tax precept needed to prevent further budget cuts.
These funding challenges have brought significant additional pressure on existing officers, meaning that clear and demonstrable action to protect police welfare is extremely important, and I would make it a priority if elected.