Police force U-turns on cuts to station front desks amid fears officers are isolated from public

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Alison Hernandez
Alison Hernandez

A police force is reversing cuts made during austerity and reopening station front desks in a bid to improve trust and provide people in crisis with a refuge.

More than half of the country’s police stations have closed since 2010 as part of drastic cost-cutting measures.

Hundreds of buildings were sold off to raise revenue for forces, who were under severe pressure to make savings.

Many that remained operational were closed to the public, with front desks being replaced with 101 non-emergency phone lines and digital platforms to report crime.

But the measures have proved controversial amid complaints that the police are becoming increasingly isolated from the public they are supposed to protect.

Victims have also argued that the lack of face-to-face access has put them off reporting crimes.

Now Devon and Cornwall Police has announced it is set to reopen four new station front desks, including ones closed under austerity measures a decade ago.

Shaun Sawyer and Alison Hernandez - Jamie Lorriman
Shaun Sawyer and Alison Hernandez - Jamie Lorriman

The desks at Tiverton, Penzance, Newton Abbot and Falmouth will all be reopened by December, and the station in Newquay that was reopened temporarily in 2020 will now become a permanent fixture.

They will be manned by police staff who will also deal with calls to the 101 non-emergency number when not handling face-to-face enquiries.

It is estimated the move will cost the force around £186,000 a year, but officials are already looking to expand the project to open more stations across the region.

If successful it is a trend that is likely to be copied by other forces across England and Wales, which are keen to improve relations between the police and public.

'Police stations offer a place of refuge for victims'

Alison Hernandez, the Police and Crime Commissioner, who has driven through the plans with the support of Shaun Sawyer, the Chief Constable, said face-to-face contact was vital in restoring public confidence in policing.

She said: "Police stations offer a place of refuge for victims and a point of contact between the police and the public they serve.

"They are hugely reassuring for many people, enabling crimes to be reported, victims to be protected and information to flow freely between the force and the public it serves.

"Wherever I go in the community people want to see more visible policing and by the end of this year we will have a record number of officers so the police are going to be there, but we need to show that they do want to actually see and speak to the public.

"They were closed in austerity because it was claimed nobody used them but it is not just about footfall.

"If you help one person in a day that is enough for me because these people might be really distressed, might have nowhere else to go, might be fed up of waiting on the phone lines of 101.

"Being able to contact the police online does not help build police legitimacy. It is great for efficiency but we are talking about effectiveness here.

"There is nothing like being able to speak face to face with someone especially if it is serious.

"It is about building trust and confidence."

'Many people continue to see value in face-to-face contact'

Mr Sawyer, who has applied to be the new Met Commissioner, welcomed the scheme but said it was important people had a range of options available when it came to contacting the force.

He said: "During the pandemic we saw a significant increase in the number of people using our website and calling 101, however, there are many people who continue to see the value in face-to-face contact within the reassuring setting of a police station.

"I am pleased that we will be continuing to explore further options of increasing our access through call centres and other digital mediums, as well as the exciting potential to open more front desks in the years to come."

Chief Inspector John Shuttleworth, who has been tasked with rolling out the openings, said: "Getting the front offices up and running will take a little work to employ some new staff, get them trained and organise for the police stations to be fitted with appropriate furniture and front counters, but by the end of the year we will start to see them fully functioning.

"Having had to remove front offices in the past due to spending cuts, this initiative is even more welcome as we know our communities need a wide range of options to be able to contact the police and the traditional front office is still an incredibly effective way to connect to people across the geography."

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