Daily Mail: Now police want residents to patrol their streets

Tuesday, 12 February, 2008

TEAMS of Neighbourhood Watch members are to be asked to do jobs previously left to the police.

The civilian groups could spy on villains, patrol crime-hit estates at night and even check car tax discs.

In some cases they would form secret groups to gather intelligence. Details of the plan are contained in a leaked memo sent to chief constables in the last few days. It brought immediate accusations that the Government is aiming for more policing 'on the cheap'.

There were also fears it could lead to community tensions, with neighbour checking on neighbour.

The suggestions for tapping the 'unused energy and enthusiasm' of Neighbourhood Watch groups come from Hertfordshire Chief Constable Frank Whiteley, who speaks for the Association of Chief Police Officers. Twenty-three per cent of homes are members of Watch schemes but few play an active role. Critics-said it was significant the memo was sent on the day a Home Office report said police numbers should be cut.

Tory spokesman David Ruffley said: 'Jacqui Smith's plan to cut police numbers in the next three years was bad enough. But now it seems she wants that gap filled by Neighbourhood Watch members taking on frontline policing duty.

'Neighbourhood Watches have done excellent work with the police but always as valued volunteers, not vigilantes.

'If Neighbourhood Watch members are to take on a bigger role it should be thought through properly, so they are not put in harm's way just for the sake of a quick Home Office headline.'

Mr Whiteley's memo gives examples of how Neighbourhood Watch members could be used, by extending littleknown initiatives which have been piloted locally.

These include an estate in Cleveland which was 'plagued by drunken youths' who left residents afraid to go out after 5pm.

Neighbourhood Watch members were sent out to tour the estate after dark, in pairs. After a few months the yobs moved away.

Also in Cleveland, residents kept watch on the home of a suspected drug dealer, noting down descriptions of visitors and their car number plates to pass on to police.

In Sussex, residents are on standby to provide search teams if anyone goes missing.

And in Cambridgeshire, the Neighbourhood Watch teams provide information about untaxed cars parked in their streets. The information has led to the clamping of 17 vehicles, the document said.

In Bedfordshire, there are even 'covert' Neighbourhood Watch groups, who do not display membership stickers in their windows.

They meet in secret to share information with the police.

In Cumbria, the Neighbourhood Watch sent letters to convicted criminals warning them not to trespass on private property.

The timing of the memo - titled Neighbourhood Watch in Context: A Strategic Tool for the Neighbourhood Policing Agenda - will be viewed as highly suspicious. The Home Office report by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, also published last Thursday, said retaining the current number of fully-trained police officers was neither necessary nor financially sustainable.

The former RUC chief said many of the tasks performed by these 'standing armies' - including manning police station reception desks to help distressed crime victims - should be handed to civilian staff instead. Only 10 per cent of policing tasks require fullytrained officers, he argued.

Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation which represents rank-and-file officers, has warned the police could be turned into a 'paramilitary force', meeting the public only in situations of confrontation.

Last night Mr Whiteley denied he was aiming for 'policing on the cheap'.

He said tapping into the potential of Neighbourhood Watch teams was possible only because of the introduction of more neighbourhood policing.

This involves local police teams, including police and Community Support Officers, forging relationships with local communities. In some cases, officers hand over their mobile phone numbers.

Mr Whiteley said the intention was for Neighbourhood Watch to supplement police teams, not replace them.

A Home Office spokesman said: 'Neighbourhood policing is all about police officers getting closer to their communities and working with local people to prevent and tackle crime. By April this year, every area across the country will have its own neighbourhood policing team.

'It is right and sensible that the police look at how they can work more closely with their local communities, including organisations such as Neighbourhood Watch which play a valuable role in helping to reduce crime, encourage community spirit and empower local people.'

An estimated 6million people nationwide are involved in Neighbourhood Watch schemes. Police believe between 10 and 20 per cent - a minimum of 600,000 - are actively involved in day-to-day activities.

The scheme was introduced in 1982. Members do not have any specific powers to take action against criminals, but are trusted to pass information to the police.

They are encouraged by the Home Office to conduct 'fear of crime' surveys, and draw up an action plan to be handed to local police.

Neighbourhood Watch teams can also apply for grants to make and distribute anticrime leaflets, and provide crime prevention kits.

Mr Whiteley's plans would also see Watch members take a leading role in organising surgeries and street meetings. They would be an 'integral part' of the response to emergencies such as flooding.