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Much of the crime police and wider law enforcement are dealing with today is of a different scale and complexity to that which I began to understand in 2013.
Back then, criminality was changing. Crime and harm involving the use of technology was rising and what is oddly called ‘traditional crime’, like burglary and robbery, was falling. It is the scale of the changes in crime and the way it is committed, over just a few years, that’s been bigger and more impactful than predicted.
Today, people are 20 times more likely to be a victim of crime online than in person, meaning law enforcement has to adapt. The Internet means criminals can cause harm to others with less risk to themselves because there’s no physical contact. The distance between a criminal and victim can be thousands of miles and often it’s not only one victim attacked, but thousands, in a single ‘click’.
Last year, hundreds of people across Staffordshire received an email purporting to be from HM Revenue and Customs paying tax refunds. This one example was so convincing that people were ‘robbed’ by criminals far away. Whilst this type of crime is high-volume it’s still very personal to each and every victim who has been ‘scammed’. Last year, for the first time, the number of online crimes exceeded all other crime.
Most police investigations now involve the forensic examination of mobile phones and laptops, or inquiries into social media. Non-tech crimes such as mugging and violence or sexual assault are often solved through information found on devices most of us use every day but even that is a ‘game of cat and mouse’ for police. The most basic technology is becoming more secure and complex. The simplest mobile, when examined, can result in hundreds of pages of information for investigators to assess. In Staffordshire, thousands of devices have already been examined this year.
Four years ago, a few hundred thousand pounds a year was spent on forensic examination of technology, now it’s millions. This complexity also impacts the wider criminal justice process, making it costlier and more time consuming. These types of crime, affecting victims in Staffordshire, have increasing wider complexities for the police to deal with due to encryption and the fact some social media services are international and outside of UK law.
Social media can be valuable as a mass communications tool. Whilst much of its use has changed our lives for the better, some impact is less welcome. ‘Trial by social media’ is a blunt instrument and the ability to bully or abuse, particularly younger users, with near anonymity can become feral in its nature and devastating for those on the receiving end.
In the last 20 months, nearly 10,000 reports involving threats or animosity on social media have been made to Staffordshire Police. These ‘new’ crimes are recorded in official statistics as ‘violent’ and that can confuse the public who associate violence with physical injury. The Internet means criminals can commit heinous physical crimes and then use technology to distribute videos and images of sexual abuse globally. Victims are often children and that criminality is now evolving in an ever more despicable way. Use of social media as a mass communication tool is a modern phenomenon.
It can easily be used to spread hatred, propaganda and discourse that leads to radicalisation. We have seen death and injury on the streets of our country that hasn’t been the result of highly organised terrorist plots but instead lone individuals whose minds have been polluted, then inspired to commit pointless and devastating acts of violence.
Communications which instil unrest need technological responses from law enforcement to counter or to block the source. But doing that in a world where mass communications are so easily available means the response from law enforcement has to be physical too. Specialist assets are deployed by police nationally, and in Staffordshire, every day to protect us. Changes in crime isn’t just about technology. Criminals building alliances across regions and countries means the threat from ‘organised’ criminality has increased. The harm inflicted on communities or individuals from drugs for instance, often has its roots in another part of our country or ultimately in another country altogether.
Increasing demand isn’t only about new crime. Some has been hidden, misunderstood or ignored by society. Domestic abuse has always been there but often stayed ‘behind closed doors’. Thankfully that is now changing, as is society’s attitude towards it. Specialist training and extra police resources mean all agencies work better together to identify and support victims of domestic abuse. In Staffordshire last year the police received 25,000 reports.
Whilst that is depressing, a big part of the 27% increase over the last few years are individuals who have suffered in silence, but are now been identified and helped.
Crimes involving sexual assault and child abuse have also seen a societal shift of mind set for the better. Honesty about historic failings across the country and improvements in the way these complex crimes are investigated has meant a surge in reports to police nationally and in Staffordshire. Further societal change, more effective joint working across public services and better information sharing between public bodies means that very large scale harm is now being dealt with, when historically it often wasn’t.
All of this is the reason why policing, locally and nationally, is in the midst of big change and redesign. So much has changed in five years. In a world where technology is evolving and the scale, quantity and complexity of the challenge is growing, policing and law enforcement must continue their evolution for the foreseeable future.
The £90million investment I’ve allocated for new technology in Staffordshire over eight years will assist and the local, regional and national work to ensure policing has the right specialist resources in the right place at the right time is also a big part of the challenge.
So, what’s the biggest challenge? All this has come over a period of time where budgets have been static but new investment, huge investment, in time and money is absolutely essential. A ‘perfect storm’ that continues to be a difficult and extremely complex path to navigate locally and nationally.
At its heart, I believe policing has to be local. Antisocial behaviour, inconsiderate parties into the early hours, drugs and low-level violence on our streets all matter to local people as does burglary or car crime or shoplifting.
All these crimes, and many more, are important because if they aren’t dealt with effectively by the police at a very local level, it eats away at the fabric of our communities and risks people feeling their public services aren’t there for them when needed.
That difficult balance to ensure police deal with the most grotesque and harmful criminality whilst not losing sight of issues that matter most to local people has been tough. The police have done well in balancing different priorities. I am, however, in no doubt at all that the most local policing in communities across Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent needs a boost. The extra funding I’ve asked for from people across Staffordshire this year will not only support work to help policing meet a changing criminal environment but also be used to recruit more warranted police officers, at least 69 more to bolster the most local policing.
It is vital that policing evolves as crime and society evolves and the work being done now and for years to come will see Staffordshire and the people here benefit into the future.