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'Swiftness and certainty' the key to Thames Valley knife crime Op

Acting DCC Tim De Meyer and Thames Valley PCC Matthew Barber spoke to Police Oracle about Operation Deter, which launched in Milton Keynes before being expanded into Aylesbury and Slough.

Operation Deter seeks to implement a “zero-tolerance approach” to possession offences by ensuring that over 18s who offend are proactively charged and remanded to court while still in custody.

Launched in Milton Keynes in July, and subsequently rolled out in Aylesbury and Slough, Thames Valley Police aren’t reinventing the wheel.

PCC Matthew Barber told Police Oracle: “It’s just a different approach. We’re not changing the law, we’re not throwing loads of money at something. We’re just saying, ‘take the law as is’, and apply it robustly by recognising the seriousness of this matter.”

The legal framework exists to ensure enforcement, if it’s used. The unlawful possession of a knife – specifically, having an article with a blade or point in a public place – carries a maximum six-month custodial sentence in the Magistrates’ Court, or up to four years’ imprisonment in the Crown Court.

Key to Operation Deter is having an approach whereby offenders know they’re likely to face those sanctions if they’re caught.

TVP’s Acting Deputy Chief Constable, Tim De Meyer, explained: “Operation Deter is predicated on the idea that justice must be swift and certain, what deters people is less the severity of the punishment and more the swiftness and its certainty.

“What is innovative about it is its speed, and this particular focus on remanding people in custody and getting them to court in custody rather than on bail.”

The decision to launch the Op in Milton Keynes was prompted by a number of tragic knife-related incidents in the city earlier this year.

Conversations held in the aftermath led PCC Barber (below) to conclude that some didn’t take the offence seriously enough, and believed they could possess a knife “with relatively little” consequence.

“The attitude of all parties, frankly: of criminals, of some in policing, of the criminal justice system – was that it’s ‘only’ a possession offence,” he said.

Two factors were behind the August expansion into Aylesbury: results and geography.

The first month of Op Deter saw TVP record 57 knife-enabled crimes in Milton Keynes – 22 people were charged, while 16 were remanded.

Contrast this with June, pre-launch, when 25 knife-enabled crimes were recorded and just six people were charged.

While the relative proximity of the two locations played its part, the benefits of moving into Aylesbury went beyond the geographical.

PCC Barber said: “A lot of the custody staff are shared between those two custody suites.

“You had custody staff who would be in Milton Keynes, able to employ these new processes, who would then go back to Aylesbury and be really frustrated because they weren’t able to do that.”

According to A/DCC De Meyer, bringing Op Deter to Slough was about doing the right thing by its residents following a “spike in serious violence”.

He explained: “It wouldn’t be right morally, where we’ve got an intervention or a strategy which we know is working elsewhere, not then to apply that as quickly as possible to another area of the Thames Valley.”

He says its application can be seen to be working, offering an example of a case involving a 19-year-old man who was sentenced to 40 weeks in custody after admitting to possession of drugs and a knife at Slough train station.

He said: “I’m not saying for certain that he wouldn’t previously have been remanded – but I think this is a step change in attitudes and speed under Deter.”

At the beginning of this month, a 37-year-old man was given a 30-week prison sentence, suspended for 18 months, after being found in possession of a knife with a locking blade.

These success stories wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of policing teams in Slough, who A/DCC De Meyer credited as being as “very progressive and forward thinking”.

“Culturally, the leadership and officers is making Deter land well in Slough, so we’re very much in debt to Superintendent Lee Barnham and his team,” he added.

A/DCC Tim De Meyer 

Both men are clear that Op Deter isn’t just about locking people up and throwing away the key – intervention is key.

This aim is particularly apparent in a separate pilot scheme that’s due to start in Milton Keynes over the coming months, which will see the Youth Offending Team (YOT) immediately notified when a child under 18 is arrested.

A YOT representative will attend custody and meet with that child within 90 minutes to commence the intervention process; if they leave custody, a further meeting will take place with the child’s parents within 48 hours.

Currently, the process can take weeks or months to put plans into place. This pilot will run as part of Op Deter, but is funded exclusively by the PCC’s office.

PCC Barber explained that the funding is being used to bolster numbers rather than to create a new team from scratch. There’s already “a couple of the team” in place, with the remainder expected by January.

He added: “Again, it’s the speed of the response. We already had a very active YOT in Milton Keynes, who were doing some really good work around under 18s who were brought into custody for a variety of things – including knife crime. This is really about speeding up that intervention.”

The idea came from the YOT themselves, who PCC Barber said believe they can respond to any young person brought into custody within an hour-and-a-half “with the resources we’re giving them”.

A/DCC De Meyer also sees the value in this approach, particularly the offer of parental contact within 48 hours.

He said: “What’s significant about this is it moves on from this idea that there’s dichotomy between either justice or diversion.

“It is possible, by understanding someone’s very complex situation - which might have led them into becoming a member of a county line, for example - both to ensure that the criminal justice system takes its course but to establish a critical relationship as soon as possible which increases the chances of persuading that person to engage with long-term supportive rehabilitation.”

A separate funding bid has been made to the Home Office to bring the same pilot to Slough, said PCC Barber.

Given the clear benefits, there is an appetite to expand Op Deter into every area of the Thames Valley.

An admittedly “impatient” PCC wants this approach to be rolled out everywhere, immediately, while ADCC De Meyer can’t see why the incoming Chief Constable won’t go for it.

As for national support, PCC Barber – who has discussed the Op with Home Secretary Suella Braverman a number of times - remarked that it’s a win-win for the government.

He said: “Here is something that can tackle one of the government’s priorities in a simple, easy to understand fashion that doesn’t cost a lot of money, and doesn’t need a change in the law. What’s not to like?"

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