In my opinion: In rural areas, only better policing can make us safer
Countrymen and women who find themselves driving down Plymouth's Union Street on a Friday or a Saturday night for the first time are invariably dazzled – not by the bright city lights, nor even the crowds of stiletto-tottering girls and brawling, bawling lads. No, the biggest shock for most residents of our market towns and rural villages will be the sheer number of police officers on duty here in city-centre clubland.
The constant question many rural dwellers ask themselves: "Why do we never seem to see policemen on our village streets anymore?" is immediately answered – they are all here, on duty in our city streets. It is not just Plymouth, of course. Exeter, Taunton, Truro and Torbay – all are packed with police across the weekend and particularly after dark. Understandably, many will say – that's when the trouble occurs. The effect, over many years, however, has been to seriously skew policing effort across the Westcountry so that incidents in the city centre are swiftly dealt with while problems that need a police presence in smaller towns and villages simply go without.
If the newly elected Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Hogg is to be believed, that is going to change on his watch. Expanding on a pledge he made on rural policing when he was standing for election, he has promised to make a real difference to policing in our rural areas. To be fair, he is also pledging to maintain policing effort in urban and coastal areas, stressing there will no "poor relation" and no "perceived favourite" when it comes to policing resource. That begs the question, with fewer resources overall, how country folk, who have been let down in the past, will see an improvement? But it is on that improvement that Mr Hogg and chief constable Shaun Sawyer will be judged from a rural perspective.
Re-assigning officers from the city streets – where it can often look as if they stand in serried ranks looking after the drunk and the feckless – to the rural villages where crimes like burglary and vandalism are on the rise would be welcome. Indeed, it is essential if Mr Hogg is to meet his promises to properly police for all. We are sure he and the chief constable will not underestimate the positive impact of putting more officers in rural neighbourhoods. If fear of crime is as big a problem in Devon and Cornwall as the surveys suggest then higher visibility policing in rural areas is, surely, the answer.
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There may be other solutions to the crime and disorder that threatens to erupt at the weekends in our cities and larger towns – from tighter licensing laws to stepping up the security that is provided by the clubs and pubs themselves. There are far fewer solutions, outside of the police force, to the crime that affects our market towns, our villages and our rural areas. The challenge for Mr Hogg and the police officers who must carry through his policies, will be to make a difference on the ground. Let's hope they can.