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FEATURES - FEEL THE FORCE

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In the second of a four-part series on partnerships, Varya Shaw investigates how councils can get the most from the...
In the second of a four-part series on partnerships, Varya Shaw investigates how councils can get the most from their relationship with local police

As home secretary John Reid is remaining tight-lipped on whether or not police authority mergers have been scrapped, police officers are continuing to do what they always do when ministers can't make up their minds - get on with their day jobs. This includes continuing their relationships with councils through initiatives such as crime & disorder reduction partnerships.

But the very nature of police officers' jobs, and thus their method of working, is rife with issues that unless managed can create tensions with council staff. 'There's a very strong culture of rank and following instructions in the police,' explains one senior expert on communication and management. 'You put that up against a social services culture which is client-centred and you've got a real clash.'

Also, the police are more likely than any to have to regularly face the very worst in society. They have to manage themselves professionally and skilfully in the most unbounded human situations - even when rationality has left the scene.

This means that very different people often sit down together around a table when the police and councils try to work together.

Senior police generally work within a crystal-clear hierarchy and are very rank-conscious, yet enjoy a high level of autonomy, financial and otherwise. It should not be surprising, then, that the police officers spoken to for this article were generally frustrated councils rarely showed the same decision-making powers.

Michael Baxter, chief constable of Cumbria Constabulary, says: 'Even if they do send the right person, they don't have the delegated decision-making authority other people have. They constantly say 'we'll have to take that back and get agreement'. This isn't a criticism of individuals - it's the system.'

Police forces can move funds around in response to changing circumstances, so if a borough commander wants to stump up a substantial sum of money, he or she can do so. Police find it baffling that councils decide where money is going at the beginning of the year and stick to it.

And Cheshire Constabulary assistant chief constable Garry Shewan describes how councils and police go at very different speeds once a piece of work has been identified: 'With a local authority you expect them to say in six months time, 'we've had a look at it and this is what we've found out'. Whereas in police, four or five months down the line we'd be at evaluation stage.'

The police know they can also aggravate. Mr Baxter admits: 'Others get frustrated with us wanting to leap into activity, whereas they want to take time and be reflective.'

Problems can surface, however, if differences in approach and culture are not recognised and catered for. For example, a real-life anecdote where a district council asked the local divisional commander to re-

organise beats to reflect its boundaries and boost its unitary ambitions proves a point. The police quickly carried out the request, much to the consternation of the district council, who had yet to discuss it with the county. Red faces all round.

This is not to say that councils' broader and perhaps more considered approach can't also be of benefit to the police, who at least lower down the tree can struggle to understand the wider causes and effects of crime.

Mr Shewan says more junior officers 'don't see those wider network issues [they think] 'take away the criminal and crime is gone''.

Senior officers need no convincing that crime is a symptom, and that in order to stop it you must tackle the causes. But they are working hard to get this message out to the rank and file.

Perhaps surprisingly though, because councils and police are so different, secondments can be hugely invaluable to boosting partnerships. Mike Hay, head of police practice at the Hay Group, says. 'You're seeding knowledge across the sectors immediately. There's too much focus on meetings; collaboration will only work if you actually get people working in each others' organisations.'

Where local area agreements are in place, an integrated public sector approach combining the best of all partners is beginning to emerge. For example, Cumbria's local area agreement has devised a single questionnaire asking residents what they think about a range of topics, including policing. The results will set the direction for the constabulary.

Perhaps the largest challenges of all facing this type of collaboration will emerge from expected plans to boost neighbourhood involvement in service shaping, and any police authority reform. How that will affect relationships and ways of working however depends largely on Dr Reid.

Dos and Dont's

How to win friends and influence people in the police force

? Try to send someone who matches the rank of the police officers you are meeting as closely as possible

? Explain why decisions take time in local government

? Second staff to learn about culture differences

? Use external experts to facilitate better communication

? Don't exploit the can-do nature of the police. Their resources are stretched too

? Never ask the police to do anything unless you are sure you want them to do it - it will get done.

Case study Brent LBC

Brent's anti-social behaviour team has seen the number of complaints it is able to deal with shoot up tenfold during 2005-2006. But setting up the team, which is jointly staffed and managed by the council and the police, meant steering through a number of sensitivities.

The hybrid unit needed to have the confidence of both sectors. And although the post of team manager eventually went to a council officer, she takes care to take her strategic direction from a board made up of police and council representatives - crucial to creating confidence.

Head of community safety Valerie Jones says: 'There have been issues for some police officers managed by a non-police person. There are cultural issues around the way the council and the police work, issues around status. But we used an external consultant to facilitate a team away-day to help resolve those teething troubles.'

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