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Chiefs warned to listen to 'factory floor' over station-closing epidemic

Nick Hudson shines a spotlight on cuts to policing in the West Midlands region

The scale of police station closures – along with a dramatic fall in the number of officers – has prompted warnings that the country is heading towards a major incident “on a par” with the 2011 riots.

More than 100 police stations will have been shut across the West Midlands once the latest closure plan is completed.

In the West Midlands force area, 72 stations and beat offices have been axed since 2010, with a further 17 stations shut in the Warwickshire and West Mercia forces’ areas over the same period, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Another 24 are being closed by West Midlands Police over the next six years in its latest budget-cutting drive, aimed at saving £5 million annually in running costs.

The force admits that with 2,000 fewer officers than in 2010 after cuts of more than £145 million, and the lowest number since 1974, it is faced with responding to more calls and more complex crime “than ever before” – with far less manpower.

But its plans, announced in March, are designed to ensure teams which work closely together are in the same building to provide a faster, more efficient service as emphasis is placed on sharing facilities such as fire stations, NHS surgeries and council offices in the “heart of communities” with partner agencies.

West Midlands Deputy Chief Constable Louisa Rolfe told Police Oracle: “These decisions are not taken lightly but it is vital we continue to question how much we spend on out-of-date buildings when we no longer fill them.

“Policing is about people, not buildings, and the money we’ve saved has allowed us to invest in technology available to officers that keeps them working within the heart of their community."

The alarm bells have been sounded by public protests and petitions over proposed closures and accompanying warnings from ranks-and-file officers, West Midlands police and crime commissioner David Jamieson and Coventry councillor Ed Ruane who told Police Oracle: “The level of proactive policing is declining, therefore for the foreseeable future we will continue to see an increase in knife crime and violent crime as a whole.

“Cuts have reduced officer and police station levels to the point where they tell me they are struggling to meet all 999 calls. So this is an indication of the level of proactive policing they can deliver.”

Cllr Ruane, a cabinet member on Coventry City Council, said many senior officers claim the falling officer numbers is not an issue but he insisted the service needs to “look to its frontline staff”.

He added: “This is true in all walks of life. If you don’t go on the factory floor, then you won’t have that clear sight of what is really happening.

“My biggest fear is that gun and knife crime will increase to the level where there will be a regional or national incident that will wake people up to the kind of resources the police have.”

Calling for “urgent investment” in policing, West Midlands Police Federation chairman Richard Cooke said he is “really disturbed” by the continuing station closures, claiming officers are further away from the public they protect, less visible and accessible – leading to the “lawlessness we are seeing on the streets”.

He added: "Officers are having to drive longer distances from their bases, are often tired from relentless demand and sometimes with a violent prisoner in tow making it extremely tough.

“This may save money in the short run but cannot be good for police efficiency or the social fabric of our country which I think we lose at our peril.”

The West Midlands PCC said it is time the government is “honest” with the public about what can be achieved in efficiency terms and admit it “can’t do everything”, adding that forces will continue to have to make “difficult decisions for the foreseeable future”.

Mr Jamieson added: “We have had to choose between police officers and buildings. By closing buildings, we have protected 100 officer posts. In years gone by it was possible to protect both.”

Nationally, some forces have shut more than half their sites since 2010, and communities say crime has soared as a result.

DCC Rolfe added: “We care about people’s perceptions of crime and the impact it can have on the quality of life for those who live and work in the region.

“Today we have around 6,500 police officers – some 2,000 fewer than in 2010 due to cuts of £145 million – and every day those officers are working hard to keep people safe and tackle crime. With less officers we respond to more calls and more complex crime than ever before.”

But she added: “Despite cuts we have more officers in local policing.”

Gun murders in the West Midlands are at their highest for a decade – at five – with almost three months of the year still to go.

And the region’s biggest two cities – Birmingham and Coventry – are grappling with demands for cash to hit back against the crimes of violence.

Three people have been shot dead so far in Birmingham this year – two being killed within days of each other. Last week there was a triple stabbing in the Dale End district of the one million-plus populated city.

Marcia Shakespeare, who lost daughter Letisha in the New Year’s shootings in the city in 2003, believes budget cuts are key to the rising death toll with the loss of manpower affecting day-to-day crime-fighting, including efforts to tackle gun offences.

Cllr Ruane is worried that Coventry’s newly-won status as the UK’s City of Culture in 2021 is in danger as a result of increasing violence.

Matters came to head this month with two people shot in Far Gosford Street in the city following last month’s fatal stabbing of Fidel Glasgow, the 21-year-old grandson of Specials singer Neville Staple.

Cllr Ruane told Police Oracle: “It’s never been like this before.

“Our reason for applying for the City of Culture was to change the image of Coventry from the outside.

“Now we are faced with needing to do the basics of providing a safe environment, otherwise people will feel they can’t return here.”

He added that officers were being “reactive rather than proactive – chasing tails, just going from one incident to another.”

But DCC Rolfe maintained: “We continue to prioritise crimes that cause the greatest harm to our communities.

“We’re targeting gun crime and last year took 144 firearms off the streets, disrupted organised crime and secured long jail sentences for criminal gangs.

“We have achieved some fantastic results, but we have more to do.”

Meanwhile, the West Midlands force is missing nearly half of its most serious emergency calls within 15-minute deadline guidelines.

Response times to the highest priority emergencies have spiralled downwards over the last two years, while demand from the public has soared.

In January last year, the force received 52,648 emergency calls, 12,100 of them in the P1 category, with officers making the priority 999 calls in 77 per cent of cases within a quarter of an hour,.

That dropped to just 63 per cent by December 2017, when the force received 15,122 of the highest priority incidents out of 56,520 calls to 999.

Last month saw the worst set of response times on record – the force receiving 65,098 calls to 999, of which 16,292 were classed in the P1 category. But officers hit the 15-minute deadline in just 52 per cent of those cases.

Last year calls to 999 peaked in the July at 65,147. But that figure has been beaten three times in 2018 – with 66,994 calls in June, 74,975 calls in July and 66,081 in August.

Meanwhile, the P1 calls peaked in 2017 in July with 16,529. This year that figure has been topped in four consecutive months – May (17,009), June (17,183), July (18,629) and in August (17,155).

The Home Office maintains that policing has the resources “to carry out their vital work” despite a changing crime scene – with a “strong and comprehensive” settlement of more than £460 million for the financial year 2018/19, including increased funding for local policing through the council tax precept.

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