Town Development Forum Puts Policing in the Spotlight

The Town’s Charter Hall is packed to hear what the Police have to say for themselves

Delegates from Bridgwater Community Groups as diverse and yet as unified as the Trades Union Council, Churches Together, The Civic Society, the Senior Citizens Forum joined resident groups, traders and inquisitive  members of the public at the latest Town Development Forum, which had decided this month to focus on Policing in Bridgwater. To emphasize the importance of the topic, the Town Council had assembled a top table featuring Sue Mountstephens – Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC),Lisa Simpson – Chief Inspector Neighbourhood Policing and Joe Piscina – Sergeant Bridgwater Beat.

Town Council Leader Cllr Brian Smedley (Westover)  welcomed everyone to the Town Development Forum, in particular the invited guests from the Avon and Somerset Constabulary and said “The Police regularly attend every one of our town council meetings as the first item on the agenda and we recognise that we have a GOOD working relationship with them. The main issues that come up every month are i) anti social behaviour in particular large groups of youth often in the town centre ii)Police resources and response times and iii)the affect of the new Hinkley Point development on policing-the large numbers of new young workers into the town and whether resources can cope. However, this meeting is for delegates and the public to have their say and hear for themselves what the Police are doing about it. Crucially we have with us today the key operational Police officers in the town and the Police and Crime Commissioner herself.

PCC Sue Mountstephens and Chief Inspector Lisa Simpson on the top table

Sue Mountstephens outlines her priorities

Sue Mountstephens was invited to give a brief introduction describing herself as an Independent PCC who was first elected in 2012 and again in 2016.  She very much believes that the role of PCC should not be politicised and sees her role as working with communities to identify priorities and to hold the Chief of Avon and Somerset Constabulary to account.

Her priority was very much neighbourhood policing teams, who played such an essential role in building trust and relationships with local communities.

She briefly outlined the priorities for the A&S Constabulary:

  • Protecting the vulnerable from harm: This included domestic abuse, child sexual exploitation, protecting those with mental illness.  As other public service budgets were squeezed, much policing now involved working with those who were mentally ill.  She reported that those with psychosis were no longer taken into police cells (there were only 2 mental health beds within the A&S Force area).   As a result of joint working with the Clinical Commission Groups (CCGs) and sharing of budgets, those with mental illness were now taken to a health based place of safety.  Nurses trained in mental health were now based in call centres, which had resulted in between 3000-4000 mental health interventions.
  • Strengthening and Improving Neighbourhood Policing: Funding for neighbourhood beat teams within the A&S area had been ring-fenced and protected.  She pledged to continue funding for PCSOs (other force areas had not).  Police scrutiny panels were scrutinising police powers (ie use of tazers/use of force).
PCC Mountstephens and Mayor Granter have a quiet word

There was an Action Fund with awards of up to £3000 to help strengthen communities plus a Pride Award to recognise those who worked hard in their communities.

  • Allocation of Resources: Funding had been allocated to making sure that police had the right ‘kit’, for example body cameras had proven extremely useful in the gathering of evidence.
  • Diversity: Efforts were being made to ensure that the police reflected the diversity in the community (at present only 2.5% police were from diverse ethnic/cultural backgrounds, in comparison to 7% of the population in the force area).
  • Working together effectively: SM explained that £60m of savings had been made over the past 4 years with the government requiring a further £20m savings by 2020.  These budget cuts had resulted in a loss of 700 officers.

She had written to MPs and the Prime Minister to oppose these cuts and put forward the case for more investment in neighbourhood policing and increasing armed response teams.

CI Simpson discusses attitudes to youth crime with Patsy Robinson

Chief Inspector Simpson talks tactics

Lisa Simpson, Chief Inspector for Neighbourhood Policing Somerset West briefly summarised her role and responsibilities.  She had a total team of 68, including Beat Managers, Officers and PCSOs, plus a small Hinkley Point C (HPC) team.  Team members met every fortnight to set priorities and discuss the best use of resources.  She confirmed that Bridgwater was a high priority.  There was also opportunity to bid for additional resources, including the horse and dog teams and other specialist teams.

Joe Piscina introduced himself as the front line Sergeant for Bridgwater.  He outlined recent successful operations in the town centre and docks area.

Cllr Smedley explained that Sgt Piscina attends every Town Council meeting (or arranges for a colleague to attend), which had proven to be extremely beneficial.   He summarised the top 3 regular issues which were raised at Town Council meetings as ASB, Police response and the effect of HPC.

He then opened the floor to questions from the members of the public.  The following issues were raised:

Camden road resident Nick Gibson raises the issue of boy racers

The  People are Angry

  1. Noisy, speeding, vehicles (Nick Gibson): This was a recurring issue.  Drivers showed no respect for the law or for others and sped through the town day and night.  Reports had been made to 101 but it appeared that no action was being taken at all.  Residents at the meeting felt that the local Police did not take this at all seriously.

Police response: Dangerous driving was an issue which the Police took seriously.  However, reports of dangerous driving would be weighed against priorities at the time of reporting – for example if there was another incident report which posed a greater threat and required immediate attention.  The police stressed the importance of continuing to report such incidents.  There had been significant investment in traffic enforcement and road safety.  The police would always need as much information as possible – for example – who/where/when.

  1. Travellers (Chris Sidaway): Recent alleged incidents of travellers stealing from allotments, involving breaking and entering, vandalism, urinating and defecating in public, intimidation and organised theft from shops had caused much distress and anger.  A Freedom of Information (FOI) request had been submitted for incidents between certain dates (10-19 May 17).   It was questioned why the police were not more diligent in following up reports of the above incidents and evicting the travellers.  The police were asked if there was an amnesty on travellers.
Chris Sidaway and Mayor Granter in a quiet moment before Chris launches both barrels at the Police over recent incidents with travellers

Police response:  There was no amnesty on travellers but their human rights could not be violated.  However, this was a very prevalent problem throughout the force area and it was often difficult to identify the particular culprits and gain evidence against them.  The lack of traveller sites made relocation particularly difficult when eviction had taken place.  SM reported that she was in discussion with the Chief Executives of the Local Authorities across the Force area to try to deal with the complex legislation surrounding travellers and to try to find a solution to this problem.

An assurance was given that the FOI request would be followed up and Cllr Smedley informed the meeting that the Corporate Scrutiny Committee at Sedgemoor District Council would be looking at the Traveller situation, including processes and procedures in eviction.

  1. Binford Place – loud noise – vehicles and shouting, drunks, ASB, drugs related issues (Steve Coram, Kaitlin Szego, Adrian Fisher, Sophie Musson-Miller, Jason Kirk): It was reported that 23 calls had been made to 101 due to the ongoing noise and ASB in this area.  There was frustration that nothing seemed to be done to deal with any of the above.  Local residents had to keep their windows closed to shut out the excessive noise.  Residents were also worried about under-age drinking and children hanging around with adults who were taking drugs. Allegations were made of illegal activity in the two local off-licences.
Town Centre resident Steve Coram demands action on town centre ASB

The concerns were shared by businesses in the Binford Place area.  The ongoing problems reflected badly on the town and caused much distress to those having to live and work alongside it day in, day out.  The notoriety of the ‘Binford Bench Boys’ was having a serious detrimental effect on the reputation of the town.

A resident also complained about the lack of a response to a formal complaint.

Police response:  SM would follow up the lack of response to the formal complaint.

The Police apologised for the lack of response to date.  Following the successful action to resolve the problems at the other end of Fore Street and the High Street with ASB involving young people, the Police confirmed that they were now able to prioritise Binford Place.  Legislation was being put in place to increase the ASB powers of Sedgemoor District Council through Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) which was currently out to consultation.  However, for the immediate future, body cameras would help capture evidence to enable the police to take action, as up until now the Police did not always have the powers to move people on.

Sue Mountstephens acknowledges the anger of residents

SM would be following up the strong dissatisfaction with the 101 system and lack of communication between 101 and local teams.  She would also be following up the issue of lack of drugs and alcohol services to support the work of the Police to actually address the issue of addiction.  Licensing laws were also considered to be a major issue.  She did assure the meeting that the Police would continue efforts to resolve this and not give up.

  1. West Street – night patrols (Alfie Betts): In response to a report of vandalism in the West Street Area, Sgt Joe Piscina confirmed that the West Street area would in future be included in the night time patrols.
  2. Docks (Pat Robinson, Ted Atkinson, Mike Slade): Members at the meeting were angry about the ASB, swimming, graffiti, intimidation and drugs incidents which occurred at the docks.

Police Response: It was confirmed that of the 40 young people involved, 15 had been dealt with, including 3 prosecutions relating to damage to property, which would be going to court along with conditional cautions for others.  Sgt Piscina reported that there were regular meetings with the schools to address this and to raise awareness of the dangers of swimming in the docks.  Work was continuing to address the drug problems within the town.

Sgt Joe Piscina and Alan Hurford talk tactics while the Mercury’s ace reporter takes notes

Alan Hurford (Town Clerk) pointed out that the Town Hall office was a key centre for reporting matters of concern to the Police and his staff were also vigilant in this respect with direct contact. He further urged the importance of retaining PC Dom Bryants town centre deterrent presence with the Police vehicle

PCC acknowledges the ‘anger and the criticism’

To sum up, Sue Mountstephens thanked everyone for attending the meeting.  She acknowledged the anger and criticism she had heard.

She praised the work of the local Beat Team, who were doing a great job at a time when resources were stretched and at a time when they were expected to solve all of society’s ills due to budget cuts in other services.

Town Council Leader Brian Smedley urges continued engagement

She urged people at the meeting to write to the local MP and to the Prime Minister to oppose the budget cuts.

Town Leader urges continued dialogue

Cllr Smedley thanked the delegates, the public, and all the Police representatives for attending and confirmed that issues which had been raised at this meeting would be followed up at the next Town Council meeting. He added that Policing was the first item on the agenda of every Town Council meeting. These meetings were open to the public who were welcome to attend and keep the dialogue going with the Police.