Nick Alston, outgoing Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex, and Chair of ARU's new Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER), talks of the power of innovation and of the challenges of introducing new ideas into a conservative organisation such as the police.
Crime and innovation are not concepts you would immediately put into the same sentence, but when you stop to think about it, there is a clear connection: the criminal mind is constantly striving to innovate and adapt in its efforts to outfox its victims.
Nick Alston has just finished his four-year term as Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Essex. In the role he had to deal with innovation in two, quite contradictory ways: to promote innovation in policing, while also fighting the unwanted, innovative mindset of criminals. “Crime is basically driven by opportunism – criminals being creative in exploiting a weakness in people or in a system. Good policing is about staying a step ahead,” he says.
New types of crime are emerging all the time: ‘cuckooing’ is when a drug gang takes over the house of a vulnerable person for drug dealing; ‘revenge porn’ may include superimposing a victim’s face onto pornographic images and posting them online; but by far the fastest-growing and impactful trend is online fraud. More than half the increase in crime is due to online offences. 'By 2020 we will have the Internet Of Things (IOT) and 5G which will open up different types of exploitation and the need for new protections,' says Alston.
Despite boosts in the police’s online detection skills and a new government cyber-security centre, he feels we are 'playing catch-up' with internet-based crime, calling it a 'capability battle' against the criminals.
But some good news is that statistics show that, overall, young people are more law abiding than in the past. 'They are better educated and less violent than in my youth, when us grammar school boys were beaten up by gangs who travelled across Essex looking for a fight. That doesn’t happen now.'
For Alston, his relationship with innovation goes deep: 'It would be true to say that I’ve pretty much lived innovation all my life,' he says. As a scientist who worked in defence and national security, then in security for banks, he has been tasked with countering - via covert operations - many sorts of threats including staying ahead of criminals skilled in cyber-crime.
When the new role of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) was announced by the Coalition Government in 2010 its novelty appealed: 'I liked the idea of trying something new and thought ‘I’ll have a go’ as I thought I could make a difference.' Each of the 40 PCCs in England and Wales has the remit of holding their local police force to account, replacing a committee of local politicians. The idea was that an elected individual could not only have more bite than a committee, but would also be directly accountable to the general public.
Alston is critical of the attitude to change in the police force: 'It’s hard to be innovative in a large, and rather conservative, ‘command and control’ culture. The big bosses’ views tend to hold sway. To my mind good managers should encourage innovation in their teams all the time,' he says.
One of Alston’s early innovations was the removal of policing targets, as they can distract the police from asking themselves ‘Where is the real harm and what can I do to prevent it?’ and encourage inappropriate arrests.
He compares innovation with tending plants: 'It’s a bit like having a greenhouse. Innovation is a delicate seedling that needs light, heat, cover and food to grow. New ideas need special protection at the start. I think the PCC role itself is like that – it’s a fresh concept that needs more nurturing at seedling stage than it has done from government if it is to really put down roots. I was disappointed the Home Office reportedly spent only £2,700 on promoting the recent PCC elections, compared to £9 million spent for the EU referendum.'
Another area of innovation that has been a passion for Alston is improving the police’s handling of domestic abuse. While the nation has been alerted via the Rob and Helen plotline of Radio 4’s The Archers to the new emotional abuse crime, coercive control (only made law in December 2015), the police in Essex are tackling this crime for real: every eight weeks a person in Essex is killed by a partner or family member, and the force receives a staggering 85 calls about domestic violence a day. 'Psychological abuse causes huge distress to large numbers of people but I can see that, like rape, it will often be hard to prove legally. I really want to improve our handling of all domestic abuse and improve outcomes for the victims. The skills needed by the police are complex and varied. It’s very hard for a young police officer to walk into a domestic row and work out how to act appropriately.'
What new steps are the Essex police taking? They have been consulting the views of those supporting victims, who are too often, but not always, women. They are now working with the charity Safelives, to explore the difficult option of addressing the male perpetrator’s behaviour, rather than the woman, who so often has to leave her home when under threat. 'I was also shocked to find how frequently women over 60 are abused. This was revealed by a research project at Harlow A&E and led to the local organisation Safer Places setting up a four-bed refuge for the over 60s,' says Nick.
'One of the most effective things we are doing is to get in early. Essex runs a programme that now identifies risky behaviours in 13-year-olds that might suggest they’ll have future violent relationships. It’s called Risk Avert and directs teenagers into learning about healthy relationships. It is working so well, Essex is selling the programme to other counties. I was troubled when I learned that of one group of 120 teenage mums, 52% were in abusive relationships, so our work is cut out.'
Alston concludes: 'I’ve believe one of the best ways to innovate in an organisation like the police is to build the police’s belief in their own abilities, while encouraging them to be open to outside influences. The police had become a bit introverted and lost confidence over recent years. I hope I have managed to breathe a bit of warm fresh air through the organisation over the last four years.'
Anglia Ruskin has formed a new Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER), chaired by Nick Alston. PIER will work in partnership with police forces and other agencies across the East of England to provide academic support, doing research into police and public safety-related issues, and initiatives that can make the region a safer place. Examples are how to improve responses to domestic abuse, or use technology to change the way policing is delivered.