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Interview: South Yorkshire PCC on remote working and contingency plans

The Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire, Alan Billings, spoke to Police Oracle about navigating the force through Covid-19 and how working from home may change the future of how the police operates.

PCC Billings has been remote working since Monday. The whole of the OPCC is now “virtual”, something which PCC Billings said they were learning a lot from.

“It does make you wonder about the future of all our work,” he said.

“I think it will make us more relaxed about the idea of agile working which has caused some anxiety about how that would work. But we’re being forced to think about it now and I think good things will come out of it as a result.”

He talked about the police estates and the negative reaction when they close: “A lot of that is driven by communities feeling reassured by a building. Even if nothing is going on in the building they seem to be reassured by it.”

PCC Billings said his priority going forward was maintaining the success of the force keeping in touch with one another.

“I think it will have implications for all our organisations, whether you’re the police or PCCs, or other parts of the criminal justice system, on what sort of meetings we need and how often, whether we can do them virtually,” he said.

PCC Billings said his diary is “decimated” because he can no longer engage with the population of South Yorkshire

He said: “My normal means of keeping in touch with communities has gone and I’ve got to think through therefore how I do that.

He said he was keeping in touch with local councillors and community leaders.

“It’s not quite the same as being in hall on a cold March evening to be assailed by a large number of members of the public who want to know why motorists are still speeding through their village and the PCSOs have disappeared,” he said.

“It’s that kind of interaction that’s going to be lost, which is a shame.”

The force’s senior command team have divided in two and there will always be some present in the building and the other half working remotely.

About four per cent of the South Yorkshire Police's workforce have reported possible symptoms and are therefore self-isolating.

PCC Billings said: “That’s not huge but as you can imagine they’ve done a lot of scenario planning on what happens if you get to 30 or 50 per cent. And that sort of planning actually takes up quite a bit of time.”

He added that the police were good at this kind of contingency and scenario planning.  

“What I learnt from dealing with the floods was that when other people didn’t think that something was their responsibility, then the police could never take that view. They always had be on hand, involved, hands on whatever the situation was. They couldn’t say ‘we’re waiting for somebody else’ and I think that’s a big difference between the police and some other agencies.”

The government has set out legislation to pull forces into the fight against the virus in the Emergency Coronavirus Bill. It includes giving officers the power to force people into isolation. The bill will be debated in parliament early next week.

PCC Billings said these measures should be a last resort.

“You begin to lose the trust of the public if you have to resort to this too often and it becomes known. So we need to keep up the pressure on the public to do the right thing.”

While Covid-19 have presented some opportunities to offenders, such as fraud, PCC Billings expects crime to go down as the virus and the lock down impacts on criminals the same as the rest of the population.

PCC Billings said he thought “some government pronouncements have not been particularly helpful” and the rhetoric from some politicians had “whipped up fear unnecessarily”.

He said the government had not come to PCCs directly to offer guidance on how to steer their forces through this crisis and there was “some direction” on the wider criminal justice system because of the contingency methods concerning trials and the courts but “a lot of it you just have to work out yourself”, he said.

PCC Billings thinks a lot of reactionary measures should be based on the needs of the community the force works for.

“To be frank, they (the senior command team) just get on with it in South Yorkshire, and probably other forces as well and use their best judgement about things,” he said.

“I think if you start saying ‘I’m working to advice’ you’re doomed. I think you’ve just got to get on with it and formulate judgements.”

However, he went on to say: “I think there’s some confusion around the whole question of who the key workers are who the government talk about and I think you need definitions around that pretty quickly.”

PCC Billings said this had to include people like call handlers.

John Apter, chair of Police Federation, said: “What officers and the public need is clear guidance and a consistent approach across all police forces about how we deal with people who are ill or infected, so that officers dealing with Covid-19 related incidents receive the protection they need.”

He went on to say: “These are unprecedented times for all of us with unique and unknown challenges, but the one thing I know is that police officers will selflessly continue to protect and help the communities they serve.”

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