Shaftesbury’s new police constable is committed to maintaining our town’s low crime status. Rob Hammond intends to ‘walk the beat’ and be ‘visible’. He discusses his approach to policing in conversation with Alfred’s Keri Jones.
Police Constable Rob Hammond has been based in Bournemouth and Blandford during his twenty years of Dorset Police service and he’s been a neighbourhood police officer in Shaftesbury for the past three weeks. I sat down with Rob inside ‘the nick’ for a coffee in the staff kitchen. I had come to ask Rob about some of the misunderstandings that people have about policing. There wasn’t a doughnut insight, so that dealt with the first cliché!
Most people accept that policing can be a tough and often thankless task. I asked Rob why he chose it. “We always say that we want to help people. I guess some excitement goes with the job. They wouldn’t make lots of TV programmes about police otherwise,” he said. “It stems from before I joined the army. My recruiting sergeant asked ’What you want to do when you leave the army?’ I wasn’t sure. He said I should think about the police.”
Rob left the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars in 1995 after extensive travel. “I served in the first Gulf War. I saw service in Bosnia with the UN and also in Cyprus,” he said. And he’s applied some of his military skills to his policing role. “A lot of stuff from being in the military is very positive in the Police – self-confidence, the ability to get a job done, to risk assess, to talk with people and to work as a team. It’s team working, not just within the police family, but with our partner agencies.”
Rob has noticed changes in policing during his service, and the one most visible to the public is the evolution of the uniforms. “We used to wear stuff that was parallel to Edwardian times. These days we look more paramilitary than a lot of people would prefer.” Rob told me that he has special, tougher trousers than many of his colleagues because he’s trained to work on wildlife crimes. It’s assumed that he’ll be crawling through undergrowth more than most officers.
“The biggest change is the demand,” Rob mused. “Resources have gone down. There are not enough police officers, definitely. We are looked at from ‘up high’, and they look at what the threat levels are and assess the current problems. That’s not to dictate, but to guide us into how we deal with our daily job. Equally, we speak to our public, because we police by consent. We look at their concerns and their problems. Quite often there’s parity. With the limited resources that we’ve got, I feel we are quite successful.”
Many people speak in nostalgic terms of police officers who knew everyone within their community. Society has changed but Rob maintains that that element of policing is important. “As neighbourhood police officers, we still get a lot of the minor stuff which we then pass down to the PCSOs. They do that same role as the ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ of thirty to forty years ago,” said Rob, referring to the 1960s and 70s TV character who tackled petty criminals through his common-sense approach to policing. “We do try to make sure that we look at the bigger picture. The biggest threat is the county lines and safeguarding vulnerable people.”
Most people are aware of ‘county lines’. Even in North Dorset, drug gangs from cities have expanded their operations to smaller towns, often exploiting children and vulnerable people to sell drugs. “You can’t find out who are vulnerable people unless you’ve got PCSOs or the neighbourhood team on the ground, getting their intelligence and finding out who they are,” said Rob.
He doesn’t think the policing ethos has altered much during his service. “I’m not doing anything drastically different. I’ve got a bigger area, but equally, I’ve got a vehicle now,” he said.
There’s been a perception that crime has risen in Shaftesbury, often stemming from social media debate. When Rob started his police career there was no Facebook. He believes social media has a role in policing but can also distort the perception of crime that’s happened here.
“The information that people get doesn’t always turn into Chinese whispers, but they do put their slant on things. Everything is out there on social media. That’s why we utilise it to push our prevention messages, because that is an important aspect of police. It’s not just about finding and arresting criminals. It’s deterring those criminals and disrupting their activity. Those are sort of things that can’t be quantified but it’s helped by social media.”
Rob gives recent dog thefts as an example of how Facebook can help victims of crime. “People get their dog stolen, it goes on social media and as soon as that makes it big, quite often, those dogs get found,” he explained.
But Rob doesn’t want residents to post incidents on Facebook and assume that a police officer will see and act upon the message. “If someone’s reporting an incident because they feel frustrated, as they are not getting through on 101 or don’t know how to report it on email, it may not get picked up for three days. That might not be the end of the world. It might be very low level. Equally, that mundane matter may be the missing jigsaw puzzle for something that other officers are investigating. It could mean the window of opportunity to catch that criminal is missed because it’s not picked up and hasn’t gone through the system in the right way. I would urge anybody who wants to report an incident to us to do so on 101, or 999 where appropriate, or on the web pages. We can’t manage the inbox of people who want to report matters on social media.”
Shaftesbury residents sometimes voice displeasure that the police station no longer has a reception where the public can walk in to report their concerns. “It’s a pity we don’t have more stations open to the public, but the demand isn’t there. People aren’t coming to police stations now. They are using the phone and our web reporting,” he said, adding that the station is used as a base for officers patrolling the area or for admin work. “A place where our response colleagues can use the computers to update crimes, do inquiries or charge batteries.”
Shaftesbury Police Station is no longer a custody suite either. Anyone arrested and detained must be transported to cells on the south coast. “There are two designated police stations in Dorset – one in Bournemouth and one in Weymouth. Generally, prisoners in this part of the county go to Weymouth and the conurbation uses Bournemouth. If one of those stations is contaminated or needs a deep clean, then they’ll open Poole.”
Rob says Shaftesbury doesn’t have staff to oversee detention cells and there’s not the demand. “North Dorset as a whole is a very low crime area. Shaftesbury is a low crime area as well. Some issues arise. This is where social media kicks in, where people learn about a couple of burglaries. Then they feel that there is quite a lot going on when actually, it’s relatively isolated. Crime will happen everywhere. I’m quite passionate about the fact that it’s a low crime area. I want to make sure it keeps that way, hence me being up here,” he said.
It’s not only social media that can distort what is going. Rob says TV can portray modern policing unrealistically. He laughed when I asked about the accuracy of dramas. Clearly, he finds them inauthentic, but he says fly-on-the-wall documentaries don’t give the full picture, either.
“They might see a group of police officers do a raid at a house. But what they don’t show is five or six hours of paperwork on top of that. I think the misconception of the public is that we come in at a certain time and we still go home at a certain time. If you come across a crime or criminal near the end of the shift, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to finish work at the right time because you’ve got all that hidden paperwork. When we’ve got to take a prisoner down to Weymouth that’s travel time. There’s a hell of a lot of stuff that goes on that people don’t realise. That takes us off the street as well. And there are no substitutes to come on.”
TV programmes often feature dramatic raids, busts and confrontation. That is part of the job. I asked Rob if he has ever been frightened. “Being a bloke, and ex-military, it’s very easy to say I never get scared. The reality is that sometimes you step into a situation and your heart does race. The adrenaline goes up and you do get concerned. You ask yourself questions as you knock on a door. ‘Are they going to set the dog on me again?’ And then you think ‘Where’s my nearest backup?’ There is an aspect of fear but your training kicks into place and you get on with it. Then, afterwards, you think ‘Crikey!'”
Rob enjoys his community role more than other police positions. “It is probably one of the best roles in policing. In response policing, you get sent from job to job. Quite often you deal with the same people and you do become quite cynical. Neighbourhood policing is the same to a degree, but you’re working within the community that you’re protecting. You pick up on issues and deal with those issues. You make it a better place. You look at something from the beginning, right to the end. You see a whole big picture. And you go home thinking, ‘That’s good’.”
Rob gets a buzz when residents greet him while he’s on duty. “That might seem minor, but it’s nice to know that someone appreciates that you are walking around on patrol. It’s a good feeling,” he said. And he’s determined to be seen in and around town. “As much as possible. I want to do a regular foot patrol daily or at least when I’m on shift. I will tie in with my rural colleagues to look at the outskirts of town. That visible presence is reassuring.”
Rob says he wants townspeople to approach him with concerns. “Don’t keep them to yourself. It may be that I can’t deal with those problems, but I might know somebody who can,” he said. “That’s the idea of partnership working and neighbourhood policing. It’s signposting people to the correct organisation. I might be a police officer, out to catch criminals, but I am here to protect people and to make sure that their quality of life is high.”