The vital work of police officers that TV crime dramas ignore – Karyn McCluskey

A good community police officer is the best asset in policing the challenges we have now and in the future, writes Karyn McCluskey.

Community police officers are on the frontline of preventing crime

There are hidden parts of all services. These are the people who keep our organisations and services going, who do quiet, intricate and complex work that requires a huge range of skills. It’s not showy; TV producers won’t think it dynamic enough to put on TV, but it’s crucial and we should value it.

I was almost 23 years in policing. When Robert Peel set out the principles of policing in 1829, he said it was the absence of crime and disorder that was the litmus test of great policing. Not detection, although that’s important, but prevention of crime in the first place. It is, to this day, the most crucial of the Peelian principles.

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I am passionate about community policing. That part of policing that doesn’t appear on Line of Duty or all the programmes about police dogs and horses (I know, they’re lovely). I mean the embedding of highly skilled and trained officers based in our communities, who are known to us and who know us – and who have the expertise to engage different parts of the community, use negotiation and influencing skills to create change, identify emerging problems and apply advanced skills to help address the problem. They are our prevention experts.

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There have been so many demands placed on policing over the last decade across the UK; counter terrorism, serious and organised crime, cyber ... I could go on. You can see the attraction and sense in ‘forming a squad’; taking officers out communities and putting them in a shiny office, dedicated to a particular topic – you’ll have seen it on telly! It’s happened in many areas, and yet I believe that high-level crime is still manifested in local communities and investment in community policing is as crucial now as it ever has been.

So it was with huge delight I went out to Kirkintilloch recently to speak about community justice and prevention to around 20 community officers. They all had around 10 years’ service and were so experienced. They had been in the role for some time and were expected to stay there; because this is a role that requires staying power, resilience and time to get to know your community. They dealt with huge complexity and talked about the challenges of preventing crime and diverting young people – and how hard this could be.

They talked about the challenges of problem solving, when you need other partners to do something and the persistence needed to make that happen. We talked about how we manage and support those with addiction issues, those citizens who have incredibly complex needs – from mental health, housing and isolation – who get involved in the justice system, but whose solutions lie elsewhere. We had difficult conversations about why we need to keep young people out the justice system but yet balancing the needs of communities, who are tired of the challenges many bring.

We still invest in community policing in Scotland and I still think it’s one of the best roles in policing. I think a good community police officer is the best asset we have in policing the challenges we have now and in the future. I think the training they need has had to change, as we realise we need to invest in specific skills and support for them. Rightly so.

As I left, I said to the brilliant Chief Inspector and the Inspector, who had about 23 years’ service, if I was the boss I’d put my best police officers in community policing. “We have,” he said. His Community Officers raised their eyebrows and looked proud. They might not make a programme about them but they are vital to driving crime down and preventing problems emerging. And we should tell them they matter more.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland