Much of the crime that police and other law enforcement agencies 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 could have been 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’.
An email received by hundreds of people across Staffordshire last year purporting to be HM Revenue and Customs paying tax refunds is one example of many. It was convincing and people were ‘robbed’ by criminals far away. Whilst this type of crime is high-volume it is still very personal to each and every victim ‘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 lap tops or inquiries into social media. Non-tech crimes such as mugging and violence or sexual assault are often solved through information found on electronic devices most of us use every day.
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 just this year.
Encryption and the fact some social media services are international, outside of UK law if police need information, can also be a problem. It is these types of crime affecting victims in Staffordshire that increasingly have some wider complexity for police to deal with. Four years ago, a few hundred thousand pounds a year was spent on forensic examination of technology. Now it’s millions. All this complexity impacts too on the wider criminal justice process, making it costlier and far more time consuming for all involved.
Social media can be valuable as a mass communications tool. Whilst much of it has changed our lives for the better, some of its 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, Staffordshire Police have recorded nearly 10,000 new crimes involving threats or animosity on social media. These ‘new’ crimes are recorded as violent in official statistics and that can confuse the public as most associate violence with physical injury.
The Internet means criminals can commit heinous physical crimes and then use technology to trade or distribute videos and images of sexual abuse globally. Victims are often children and that criminality is also evolving in an ever more despicable way.
Use of social media and mass communication tools is a modern phenomenon. It can easily be used to spread hatred, propaganda and discourse that leads to radicalisation as we’ve seen with death and injury on the streets of our country. No longer only highly organised terrorist plots but often lone individuals whose minds have been polluted in some way and inspired to commit pointless but devastating acts of violence.
Communications which instil unrest do need technological responses from law enforcement to counter and block the source. But the task is enormous because mass communication is so easily available meaning the response from law enforcement isn’t just technological, but also physical. Specialist police assets costing vast amounts of money are deployed nationally, and in Staffordshire, every day to protect us all.
Changes in crime isn’t only 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 or continent 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 changing, as is society’s attitude towards it.
Specialist training and more police resources means all agencies work better together to identify and support victims of domestic abuse. In Staffordshire last year police received 25,000 reports of that. 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 mindset for the better. Honesty about historic failings across the country and improvements to 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 is needed. Harm on a very large scale is, however, now being dealt with when historically it often wasn’t.
Everything I’ve written so far is the reason why policing locally and nationally is undergoing enormous change. Dealing with complex new crimes on a scale not imagined a few years ago whilst ensuring specialist services are available when needed to the most local policing is essential. I’ve also allocated nearly £100million of investment in technology and new capabilities over eight years to ensure Staffordshire Police have the right tools for the job.
And the biggest challenge? All this has come over a period where budgets have been tight but new investment, huge investment, has been essential to equip policing for a changing society and ever more complex criminal landscape. A ‘perfect storm’ that remains a difficult path to navigate locally and for wider law enforcement.
My strong view remains that, at its heart, policing should be local. Antisocial behaviour, inconsiderate parties into the early hours, drugs and low-level violence on our streets all matter a lot to local people, as does burglary or car crime and shoplifting.
All these crimes, and many more, are important because if they aren’t dealt with effectively by the police, it eats away at the fabric of our communities and risks people feeling the public services they expect 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 every day, 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 significant boost. That is now happening.
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. As part of the wider work being done, over 140 extra officers will return to neighbourhoods during the next two years.
It is vital that policing continues to evolve as there is little evidence that the evolution of crime, of harm, of technology and society will slow anytime soon. The work being done now will mean Staffordshire and the people here will benefit significantly into the future.