On Friday 15th August I joined a police shift covering the SE1 and SE17 postcodes. This was spurred by local police changes and reductions in numbers, an offer from the Borough Commander, Zander Gibson, concerns expressed by Tenants and Residents' Associations and information on an apparent rise in incidents involving people with mental health conditions and associated demand for police time.
I started with the local team at the Walworth police station, which now provides a base for the 'cluster' covering the whole SE1 and SE17 postcodes (which had more localised bases until recent cutbacks). I only live round the back of the station and have been inside just a few times - most recently to provide a witness statement after helping catch a mugger.
The team briefing covered lots of issues, with a special focus on the Walworth Road on my council patch. This was useful to hear as a friend and local community leader (the Chair of Pasley Park) was robbed on Walworth Road the day before - shoved out of the way after entering her PIN at the Natwest ATM.
Hearing about the rise in 'Continuous Watch' cases was also revealing. My cousin is a police officer and had raised this issue - as had local mental health charities and police officers. Basically, officers are required to oversee someone considered (or self-declared) a risk to themselves or others. Tough work. Demanding in hours. And an indication our mental health services are not just failing the local people who need them most, but their families, the broader community and public services more generally. Which, of course, comes at a price. It is not a cheap option to have cells and officer time dedicated to picking up pieces. It removes officers from other frontline duties. But it explains part of the local communities' complaint that officers are becoming less visible, raised at a recent Borough, Bankside and Walworth Community Council meeting.
However, with 300 fewer police officers and PCSOs between 2010 and 2015, my sympathy remains with over-stretched officers. And the local team also raised their increased responsibilities as well as depleted resources.
The incidents that I observed with the team ranged from reminding someone to appear in court, to seeking a vehicle's removal in SE1, attending a domestic scene after a dispute and visiting crime 'hotspots'. The most disturbing incident was rushing to the riverside after a man walked into the Thames about 9.30pm.
Officers on boats, bikes, in buses, cars and even India-99 (police helicopter) got there fast. The man entered the Thames near Gabriel's Wharf but soon disappeared. The currents in the Thames are strong and the water will have been cold. It was so physically close to night-time revellers, with hundreds of people strolling along Bankside enjoying their evening, and yet so distant in mood and event. The man was not recovered Friday. I await news but the expectation is his body will be found in time. A sad contrast with the youthful buzz of culture vultures and the night-time economy along this part of the riverbank, but an almost everyday event for our local police officers to have to respond to and deal with professionally.
I am very grateful to Commander Gibson and Inspector Barton for giving me the chance to join a local shift. But even more grateful to Sergeant Peter Smith, PC Lulu, Darren, Lauren, Leroy, Katy, Godfrey and the full local team for allowing me to join their work for such a long period. I look forward to further engaging with officers - including joining a response vehicle and dawn raid.
I found the shift worthwhile, eye-opening in cross-agency issues and recommend other Councillors and others take the opportunity. Anyone seeking to cut our thin blue line any further should experience the frontline before voting - and should be accountable in person to officers serving our community with such dedication.