The days when every town would have a police station and every village its own bobby have long gone as a result of cutbacks, technology and modern working practices.
But critics now fear the situation has become so dire that victims of crime are being fobbed off with gimmicks such as ‘virtual police officers’ and police surgeries in cafes.
Police buildings worth millions of pounds have been sold or closed to the public. Chief constables claim people don’t want to walk into a station to ask for help, and are instead introducing touch-screen ‘contact points’ or sending officers to cafes or libraries.
Chief constables claim people don’t want to walk into a station to ask for help, and are instead introducing touch-screen ‘contact points’
They say many people would often rather call or email the police.
But now a Daily Mail investigation reveals that these alternatives have left the public desperately short-changed. It found:
Screen where you speak to a PC eight miles away
A videolink machine used to contact a ‘virtual policeman’ is the latest bid to replace traditional stations with cheaper alternatives.
Nottinghamshire Police swapped its old station in Eastwood, which closed in 2014, for a webcam, where locals can speak to an officer eight miles away.
Nottinghamshire Police replaced its old station in Eastwood for a webcam
But although the force pitched it as a way to have ‘police and town council services in one place’, many didn’t even know the screen was there. Residents branded it a ‘gimmick’, pointing out that it is hidden inside a council office.
When it was launched in August, one senior officer said: ‘The contact point will maintain the virtual front counter service. In times of reduced resources and fewer police premises we are delighted to maintain a visible and accessible presence in Eastwood.’
But resident Karen Walker, 47, said: ‘I’ve never heard of it, but I don’t think speaking to someone on a computer screen is the same as a real-life conversation at all.’
The force pitched the webcam as a way to have ‘police and town council services in one place’, but many didn’t know the screen was there
Nottinghamshire Police Inspector Steven Wragg said the original front counter was closed as it only had five visitors a month.
He added: ‘Accordingly we’ve adapted to how best we engage with the community by providing the advice centre, online reporting, 101, while also retaining some front counter services where footfall is greater.’
- Women reporting being raped or trying to escape domestic abuse during sessions staffed by community volunteers in a public library;
- One force asking people to speak to an officer through a video-link machine tucked away in council offices;
- Officers hosting ‘cuppa with a copper’ sessions in cafes are playing computer games when no one turns up;
- A police counter was replaced by a touch screen – that was found to be out of order.
The number of stations with front counters where the public can talk face to face with officers has been slashed by almost half in seven years – from 901 in 2010 to just 510 now.
Many communities fought to stop the fire sale of irreplaceable town centre stations, fearing it would lead to rising crime. But in London, Mayor Sadiq Khan is closing dozens of counters, leaving just one station open to the public 24 hours a day in every borough.
His decision is mirrored across the UK as forces install civilian staff in other public buildings.
Paul Kohler, 58, a senior lecturer in law at the University of London, has grave reservations about replacing police counters with visits to a café.
He began campaigning for police stations to remain open after his life was saved by officers who raced to his house from nearby Wimbledon police station in south London to confront a gang of robbers who burst in and attacked him.
Mr Kohler said: ‘Experiment, yes, but don’t carry on things that don’t work. There must be proper research and an evidence-based approach.’
Our investigation into police ‘contact events’ this week showed anyone who wanted to speak to local police had to deal with broken technology, bored officers and unsuitable venues.
The counter at Dorchester Police Station in Dorset is no longer open to the public – so those wanting a face-to-face meeting can speak to volunteers such as Terri Gill, 66, two days a week at the library.
She said: ‘We’ve had a domestic violence victim come in who was fleeing her partner, and her three children all aged under six were in the car. Another lady reported a rape. In that situation we would go somewhere more private and the police would handle the matter.’
In Snaresbrook, east London, officers sent to cafes for ‘cuppa with a copper’ sessions were left playing computer games on their phones when just one person turned up in 80 minutes.
Next year, Redbridge in east London will have just one police station, despite soaring levels of violence and knife crime.
Meanwhile, senior officers in Cheshire praised computer touch screens installed outside police stations so people could ‘web chat’ with staff. But residents complained they were so complicated that even tech-savvy teenagers would struggle to use them.
In Knutsford, toy shop owner Stuart Andrews said: ‘From an older person’s point of view – particularly if they are in some sort of panic – are they going to be able to use this?’
Chief constables claim people don’t want to walk into a station to ask for help, and are instead sending officers to cafes
In Frodsham, 20 miles away, a touch screen was installed at a fire station, but was not working when the Mail checked it.
Ieva Rozentala, 33, said: ‘If I had to use it, I wouldn’t know where to start, especially if I was already stressed. Having a police station makes people feel safe – this box doesn’t.’
Retired council worker Alan Buckley, 70, said: ‘If an elderly person was mugged, what would they do? Would they be able to use it? They want to see someone in person, not options on a screen.’ On Thursday, three officers spent 85 minutes waiting at the Sparrow Café in Chiswick, west London, but no one came.
The neighbouring police station closed this month. Local councillor Robert Oulds said: ‘Meeting police in a coffee shop does suggest people may feel their issues aren’t going to be taken seriously.’ In Caerwys, North Wales, a police community support officer (PCSO) held a ‘Christmas cuppa with a copper’ event advertised on Facebook but left early because no one attended. The idea was criticised by resident Sandra Evans 66, who said: ‘Some think it is too open – they do not want to discuss their concerns in a public space.’ At the library in Frome, Somerset, an officer waited all afternoon without anyone speaking to him.
Anne Smith, 63, said: ‘The last time I was here I could completely overhear a conversation going on at the police desk – it could do with being a bit more private.’
Police buildings worth millions of pounds have been sold or closed to the public and critics fear that victims are being fobbed off with the gimmick of ‘virtual police officers’
Police forces said the meetings and contact points were ‘not a replacement for traditional policing’.
Janette McCormick, Acting Chief Constable of Cheshire Police, said: ‘The contact points form part of a wider project looking at all aspects of public contact as we seek to meet the needs of the communities we serve.’
But former police officer Norman Brennan, 58, who campaigns on behalf of victims, said: ‘Measures such as these are a downward spiral and will deter many from reporting crime. Sadly, I can only see things getting worse.’
Dorset Police said: ‘Officers remain based at stations that no longer have an enquiry office. They can meet the public there when an appointment has been made.’
The Met Police added: ‘We are redesigning our services to be focused on what people want.’